A Discussion with Timothy Shriver

With: Timothy Shriver Berkley Center Profile

July 3, 2012

Background: Tim Shriver reflected, speaking with Katherine Marshall, on his long history of engagement with Special Olympics and the values that have inspired them and him in his work. He met the earliest form of Special Olympics in his own home, as his mother worked with children with disabilities. Fun and an understanding of how to bridge divides among very different people came from this early experience. His early professional work in education and with programs addressed to disadvantaged children reinforced this sense and also convinced him that sports are a special unifier, offering a meaningful path towards social justice. In the genesis of Special Olympics, special was a more central concept than Olympics: special gave each participant the respect they deserved, pointed to their merit as an individual. The word Olympics takes the values of guts, determination, courage and achievement and applies them to all people, especially those who are marginalized and face special challenges. The Special Olympics values, he argues, are for everyone, inclusive in all respects. They open paths for everyone because they do not focus on elimination and a pyramid of achievement. Shriver sees the Paralympics as quite different: taking the Olympic model and showing that people with physical disabilities too can achieve extraordinary physical feats. The Special Olympics model is that people with intellectual disabilities can achieve extraordinary human achievements: everyone has elite achievements within themselves. The aim of Special Olympics is to leave a legacy everywhere that is inclusive and improves lives. While the movement is not religious it carries with it important spiritual values.

How did you get involved in the Special Olympics?

My involvement with Special Olympics has developed from two different threads in my life: the first my early family involvement with children with disabilities, the second my adult passion for education and justice.

The first began when I was very young, and, through my family, I had a lot of experience with people with different intellectual abilities. My mother was very active in working with such children. She launched a summer camp in my backyard when I was about three years old. I think that is what gave me a sense of the great value and potential of sports as a way to overcome the obstacles separating people from one another. This was my introduction to both the problems and the potential to overcome them when I was a child. As I recall those early days I was inspired by the fun and curiosity of figuring out who these other children were. I recognized and felt an empathy that some of them faced many challenges, and some were even unable to speak. But an important aspect, and one from which I drew much energy and inspiration, was that being with them, with games and sports as a bond, was fun.

Sport is in many ways the use of the body as an expression of feelings and longings and is a language of the body that invariably has much in common across all cultures. As a kid I would say, “I want to run, swim a race, kick the ball, and climb the rope.” Those are all expressions of your inner self through your body. A child with an intellectual disability has the same sense of “I want to play.” I truly wanted to understand both the common threads and the differences that these children faced.

Now fast forward to my professional interest, the second thread. After college I worked with high-risk children who were underdeveloped. In those days they were mostly kids of low economic status backgrounds in urban America. So many kids from poor neighborhoods were in a sort of dream depression, where they simply did not believe in themselves- unable even to dream. That dream depression is more obvious, though not necessarily more prevalent, in disabled children. It was not far to go from there to working with children with special needs. I found a strong common interest in exploring how I could be a more effective partner to these children and help them to find their own potential and possibility.

What brought these two threads together was a sense that sports is a powerful unifier. People who did not understand disabilities, or those who might even be afraid of a child or adult with down syndrome, would still play with them. That capacity to reach out mesmerized me.

Through Special Olympics, through physical fitness, play and competition, people with disabilities are no longer seen as a problem or marginalized. They are seen as assets, as the center, as athletes, as champions. Thus through Special Olympics, sport brings people together and spans social boundaries and labels. We were not Catholics and Protestants, rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, urban or rural. Instead, we can all play softball.

How did the idea of the Olympics come about? What is the formal tie to the Olympics?

My mother had been working to increase research and awareness of intellectual disability. In 1968, she partnered with the Chicago Park District to create a major sporting event, and they simply decided then to use the term Olympics. The most important choice in 1968 was not the use of the word Olympics, but the word Special. When asked, most people would say yes, they want to feel special. The word has a positive overtone to it.

The focus on the term Olympics has meant two things over time.

First, it takes the Olympic values of guts, bravery, determination, and human courage, and gives them to a population that has been stigmatized and had no sense of those virtues. It showed that Olympism is not just the domain for those on the peak of the pyramid, but that it is for all in the pyramid. It was not me who came up with this idea; I am just the inheritor of the gene and the idea.

And second, it takes away the idea of exclusive achievement and extends the joy of involvement to everyone. At first, many people tended to be rather dismissive in their understanding of the term Special Olympics, seeing it as just a nice charity. People have said to me directly, that I don’t do sports, I do play. “You are not the Olympics, you are a recreational program.” And why do they say this? Because Special Olympics does not have elimination and competition as a way to define excellence. We do not have a narrowing model of sport. Thus most people do not think of the Special Olympics as sport or the “real" Olympics. People say, “Tim, are you going to the real Olympics?” I heard that for 20 years, and I thought "what are the real Olympics?"

Thus the Olympic values offer their core ideal to everyone. Sport is a traumatic experience for most people, as the entire model hinges on eliminating people to get to the best. Even if you are one of the best people in the world, in tennis for example, you will remember that you were eliminated in the first round at Wimbledon. We don't pyramid or eliminate people and rank order people against each other. Our preparatory group is not a normative social curve, but rather it is based on the individual ability. Our whole point is that achieving one’s personal best is sports excellence.

Does the Paralympics follow a different model from the Special Olympics?

The Paralympics use the Olympic model to show that people with physical disabilities can achieve extraordinary physical feats. The Special Olympics model is that people with intellectual disabilities can achieve extraordinary human achievements. Special Olympics is not interested in an elite achiever, but rather that everyone has these elite achievements within themselves.

Last year we had four million athletes compete. Our goal is to have 40 million athletes participating every day around the world. This contrasts it quite distinctly from the Paralympics model.

Have you met any issues using the Olympic name with its commercial dimensions?

We do not own the rings or the name; we are sanctioned to use the name Olympics together with Special. We are not commercial but we do not shun the commercial dimension, in fact we want companies to see the value of what we do for the stakeholders and for society. We have a social mission to change society. We are hungry for people to value our athletes. If a company wants to spend a million dollars to publicize our athletes, we’re like, “BINGO!” We are not as fearful of commercial engagement as some are in seeing the commercialization of sports more generally.

We do not face the challenges that the Olympics faces with doping and cheating, nor the downsides of ticketing and corporate interests. We don't have any of that. Everything we do is free. We do not feel a threat. Maybe we should, but I don't.

We have heard much talk about the legacy of the London Olympics. The organizers are proud that 2012 will be associated with urban renewal and a far keener sense of social responsibility than in previous Olympics. One potential legacy that interests us is the link between sports and international development? Are these also dimensions of the Special Olympics?

When we do Games, we believe that Games at any level thrives as a movement—there is an interface between sports and a change in heart and mind. Games are the driver of a larger social and attitudinal shift. So from the beginning, we have been looking to see how to use Games to drive the larger agenda. If we had simply organized Games every two years as a big spectacle, we would have failed dramatically. Our legacy goal is not a physical sustainability of the events as such, but rather is the further strengthening of our movement around dignity, acceptance, and community building, in all parts of the world. So when we had our most recent World Games in Athens, Greece, one legacy was sustainable health programs in Malawi. We made sure that the health minister of Malawi was there with other health experts to have an intellectual dialogue on how to strengthen health care for people with disabilities. That is an example of an initiative we set in motion through the Games.

Even if we had a local Games on the campus of Georgetown University, a primary question would be, what would be the legacy? How will we sustain the energy and ensure that the social impact of the games permeates the campus.

We have gone through a dramatic shift in our geographic focus. In 2000, 75 percent of our athletes were in the U.S. and Europe, and today, about 75 percent are from the global south and the developing world. As a result we have identified the need for people in the development field to pay far closer attention to issues like stigma and lack of access to education and health care, in refugee camps, villages and towns. In Korea for our next games in January 2013, we will convene a summit on the need for equality and assistance for people with intellectual disabilities—that will be our focus.

The demographic shift has sharpened our interest in the developing world. We have to train our own people as well to work in areas where extreme poverty in present.

A final question: how far have you found churches and formal religious bodies receptive to these ideas?

Religious organizations and leaders are very receptive to us. Religious institutions, mosques temples, churches, provide a venue for us to have local programs and many provide volunteers. We are nondenominational: we do not have a faith based commitment or identity, but we are part of a new form of commitment, where people come to us because they find in Special Olympics experience a sort of spiritual food, a school of the heart, inspiration. There is a hunger for religiously deep experience, and quite frequently people do not find those experiences in their religious institutions, but they do in organizations like ours. If dignity burst out of your heart—no boundaries emerges in moments of play and declarations. These are quintessentially spiritual moments making true epiphanies. They seem to happen powerfully in our organization, although we don't have religious links of any kind.

On the other hand, there is an emerging paradigm of spiritual but not religious organizations. I am not sure if that is the right label for us, but we have a lot of people looking for that transcendence, not in the traditional controlled mechanisms of a particular faith tradition but in movements like the Special Olympics where we are able to unleash the human spirit.

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