Tim Shriver. Photo courtesy of Special Olympics

What Do Special Olympics and the Magna Carta Have in Common?

Tim Shriver battles "attitudes of mass destruction"

The son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and nephew of Robert, Edward, and John F. Kennedy, Tim Shriver became the chair of Special Olympics International in 2003. And like many in his famous family, he is not scared to speak out against injustice and prejudice.

“We’re trying to communicate that the most urgent challenge facing the world today is attitudes of division and fear of difference. Full stop,” Shriver said in a recent phone interview.

“We’ve gone from being a charity to being an empowerment organization.”

The 59-year-old is not a politician, but he is definitely a public servant, having spent much of his adult life studying education and pushing for the rights of the marginalized, and having received numerous accolades and board appointments for his human-rights advocacy. At Special Olympics, he and the countless others who work with him are targeting discrimination and division.

“We think there’s a lot of other problems in the world, but … as the earth gets smaller and we get closer together, that fear of difference — what I call ‘attitudes of mass destruction,’ the attitude that we’re too different to be able get along, that we have to destroy others who are different from us — that’s the most dangerous problem on Earth,” Shriver proclaimed.

When he speaks at SXSW EDU in March, he naturally wants to convey how Special Olympics has grown and changed over the past half century. Going back to its origins in the early 1960s as a summer camp for intellectually disabled young people in the Shrivers’ Maryland backyard, the organization today engages more than eight million people in more than 172 countries, Shriver estimates.

“I like to say we’ve gone from being an event to being a movement,” he added. “We’ve gone from being a charity to being an empowerment organization.”

He also pointed out that Special Olympics is now the world’s largest school-based social inclusion movement, and its largest public health program and sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities. “And, we will soon be the largest early-childhood intervention support system for children with intellectual disabilities and their families in the world,” he said.


At the heart of Special Olympics is, and has always been, “the idea of sport,” Shriver explained. As his mother did before him, he passionately believes that sports activities can grow and nurture, equalize, and even heal parts of our wounded psyches.

“Sport gets you out of your head and into your body,” Shriver said. “It allows people to experience the hunger in their bodies, the need for rest in their bodies, the desire to connect to other people with their bodies ... Secondly, it’s fun. I think fun is very important. People enjoy themselves … Third, I would say the primary learning system in the human species is play. All you have to do is look at an infant to know that most of how the infant learns is through imagination, through the creation of dramatic encounter, whether it’s throwing a ball and catching a ball, or playing hide and go seek …”

Add all that up, and you get an essential tool that is both an escape and a reality check.

“People want to get out of their head,” Shriver continued. “People want to have fun. People want to learn, but they don’t want to just learn in classrooms … So sport is really this very powerful nexus of experience, and it’s a transformative one that our culture still hasn’t fully understood or capitalized on.”

But Special Olympics isn’t just about people with intellectual disabilities; it is for everyone who dreams of a less divided world. The premise — to embrace a community that had long been ignored or outright rejected — stems from a uniquely American optimism that pushes for opportunity, equality and fairness. And yet even world-changing human rights proclamations, from the U.S. Constitution to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), haven’t quite “included” the intellectually disabled community. That’s what Shriver and his Special Olympics colleagues are actively trying to change.

“Go back all the way to the Magna Carta,” Shriver said, “and lurking within that whole long … history has been a subtle discrimination against this population. Which was that they were just too different to belong. No matter what country you look at, this group has always been pushed aside. So now, in these communities … people are standing up, they’re really redefining the whole idea of human rights. So it’s a very powerful, political, social and I would dare say spiritual transformation that our athletes are offering to the world.”

Tim Shriver will be part of the A Unified Perspective Featured Session at SXSW EDU on Monday, March 4. In addition, Special Olympics is sponsoring the Film program and will be part of the Expo at SXSW EDU.

SXSW EDU will be held March 4-6, 2019. Your SXSW EDU Badge gets you access to all conference and festival events. See you in March!

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