TERRE HAUTE — Speaking to a packed house at Indiana State University’s Tilson Auditorium, the chairman of Special Olympics International said those looking for a cure to what ails this divided nation should look no further than the special olympians themselves.
Timothy Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, said Wednesday evening the indomitable, positive spirit of the physically and mentally disabled at Special Olympics games around the world should serve as the alternative model to the dismissive bullying currently plaguing the country.
“We are living in an epidemic of othering,” Shriver said. “No matter which side you’re on, the language we use about each other is identical on both sides of our divide. People say the exact same thing about you, as you say about them.
“… But the reality is most Americans are desperate to change it, they just don’t know how. And my premise is, if we want to change it we have to look at special olympians.”
Shriver’s aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, was born with an intellectual disability and seen as lesser-than. Standards of the time would have had Rosemary institutionalized and hidden away from the public, he said.
His grandparents bucked the trend and kept Rosemary home with her family.
But, as Shriver spent a majority of his talk covering, Rosemary being “othered” angered Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
“My mom was a woman who loved her sister and was angry,” Shriver said. “Sometimes we’d like to think of social change as sweet and pretty and kind and peaceful, but sometimes it isn’t. My mom was furious with how Rosemary was treated and how her mother was treated [for the decision she made].”
In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a summer day camp in her back yard for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, a camp which evolved into Special Olympics, now a global competition that involves millions athletes from 150-plus countries.
Shriver said the impact of that first Special Olympics in 1968 was near immediate.
“It was a new kind of competition where winning wasn’t about who you beat, but about how you run the race,” Shriver said. “It wasn’t about where you finish, but about who you bring with you. And your order of finish isn’t about who is the best, but about did you run your best?
“And if you run your best and gave your all and brought people with you — that’s the new definition of winning.”
Now 50 years later, Shriver said, those lessons of inclusion and humility should be championed more than ever before.
Take athletes from Iran, Iraq and Israel for example, he said, historically rival nations that enter Special Olympics World Games one after another.
“What do the athletes do? Do they negotiate treaties? Talk about nuclear centrifuges, bunkers or sanctions?” Shriver said. “No, they put their arms around each other and try to have some fun.
“And some people would say that isn’t real peace. BS, that’s exactly what real peace looks like. You don’t just make peace at the White House or the UN. This is where it starts.”
Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex.