While Eunice Kennedy Shriver is the founder of Special Olympics, her husband, Sargent Shriver, was deeply involved as well. Shriver lent his talent, skill, enthusiasm, deftness and charisma to the cause, drawing on his previous work as an ambassador, Peace Corps director, international attorney, and politician to open doors around the world for Special Olympics programs.
Shriver's impact worldwide cannot be overstated -- his involvement started in 1984 when he became the President of Special Olympics; then in 1990 he was elected Chairman of the Board, and finally, he ended as Chairman in 2003. Using his skills as a politician, diplomat, peacemaker and person of faith, he opened doors in the former Soviet Union, China, Tunisia, New Zealand, South Korea, all throughout Eastern Europe and many other countries, helping Special Olympics grow from a U.S.-based mission to the global organization it is today.
But Special Olympics wasn't just about growth to Shriver -- it was about making change. He saw how Special Olympics could be used for peacebuilding between nations with political discord or unrest. He believed in the unifying effect of a simple sporting event -- and used sports as a doorway to dialogue about the human rights issues surrounding people with intellectual disabilities.
Jamie Kirkpatrick, the Director of International Programs during Shriver's tenure, stated:
"He was a tireless ambassador for change: passionate, optimistic, energetic, vigorous, and always joyful. On long international flights, he would spend the hours reading his missal or reflecting on what needed to be done to advance the cause of people with intellectual disabilities in some new corner of the globe. In many countries, he literally opened the door for athletes, families, and volunteers, breaking down barriers of language and cultures while offering a new vision of achievement, inclusion, and love. These travels always seemed to renew Sarge; the world was his stage and he loved making it a better place for all of us."
Today, Special Olympics is active in 170 countries with more than two-thirds of the athletes coming from outside the United States -- and China boasts the largest program in the world.
National leaders have taken Sargent Shriver's message that Special Olympics can accomplish great things quite seriously. At a press conference in Washington D.C. in 1990, Alexander Potemkin -- the Minister-Counselor of the then Soviet Embassy -- spoke these words: "Special Olympics will assist us all -- East and West -- to synchronize our moral compasses." Internationally, Sargent Shriver impressed thousands of government officials and diplomats with his commitment to people with intellectual disabilities, inspiring them to make their own commitment.
In an excerpt from Scott Stossel's biography on Shriver, Yan Ming Fu, the former deputy minister of China, is quoted as saying, after he sees Shriver (who was then 85 years old) get off a plane from an international flight: "He doesn’t have to be here. But he keeps doing this because working for retarded children is important. If we Chinese people have any pride in ourselves, we ought to match this kind of commitment to humanity ... we ought to treat these children with more respect."
One significant part of Shriver's legacy as it relates to the Special Olympics is the fact that his son, Timothy has continued that expansion of the organization in his capacity as Chairman of the Board of the organization. He has worked tirelessly to solidify Special Olympics' place in the international world. Today, Special Olympics reaches 4.5 million athletes through 228 programs in 170 countries. It continues to inspire millions of coaches, volunteers, staff, and especially government and political figures around the world to make changes on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities.