The beginnings of Special Olympics

A photo of Dr. Frank Hayden

Dr. Frank Hayden

In the early sixties, testing of children with intellectual disabilities revealed that they were only half as physically fit as their non-disabled peers. It was assumed that their low fitness levels were a direct result of their disabilities. A Toronto researcher and professor, Dr. Frank Hayden, questioned this assumption.

Working with a control group of children on an intense fitness program he demonstrated that, given the opportunity, intellectually disabled people could become physically fit and acquire the physical skills necessary to participate in sport.

His research proved that low levels of fitness and lack of motor skills development in people with intellectual disabilities were a result of nothing more than a sedentary life style. In other words, their intellectual disabilities resulted in their exclusion from the kinds of physical activity and sports experience readily available to other children.

Inspired by his discoveries, Dr. Hayden began searching for ways to develop a national sports program for intellectually disabled people. It was a goal he eventually achieved, albeit not in Canada. His work came to the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Kennedy Foundation in Washington, D.C., and led to the creation of Special Olympics. The first sports competitions organized under the Special Olympics banner were held at Soldier’s Field in Chicago in 1968.

Harry “Red” Foster, a Canadian broadcast legend and philanthropist accompanied a floor hockey team from Toronto to those first Games in Chicago. “Red” was quick to see in Special Olympics a further opportunity to enhance the lives of Canadians with an intellectual disability. Upon returning to Canada he set about laying the foundation for the Special Olympics’ movement in Canada. The following summer – 1969, the first Canadian Special Olympics event was held in Toronto. From that modest beginning, the Special Olympics’ movement quickly spread across the country and grew into the national sports organization it is today.

Did you know?

One of our  own coaches, Penney, took athletes from schools to  the first games in 1969! Here is what she had to say:

“I took a team to those 1969 Games in Toronto – another teacher and I took six students from the school where we worked (in Beaconsfield, Que.) to compete in Track and Field and Swimming. We travelled to Toronto by train, stayed at the Royal York and we had a blast. I’m not sure how we found out about the games but we did and it was a great experience for everyone. Most of my athletes had never been on a train before, nor stayed in a hotel with an elevator nor chosen food from a buffet – or even been away from home overnight before. Things were very different in those days.”