The Special Olympics: progressive or regressive?

While persons with an intellectual disability may require support from members of the public, extending this obligation too forcefully can be debilitating.

FEATURES“The world will never be the same again.” This remark was made by the Chicago politician, Richard Daley, at the opening of the first Special Olympics World Summer Games in 1968. Few could claim that Daley’s prediction has not at least partially come to fruition. In the 47 years since its foundation, the Special Olympics has grown immeasurably to occupy a prominent position within global sport; the 2015 instalment of the World Summer Games welcomed some 6,500 athletes, representing 165 countries, to compete in Los Angeles, California.

The manner of this all-encompassing transformation preoccupies modern observers. Certain commentators consider the Special Olympics to be a progressive influence on both participants and non-participants. Others, nonetheless, regard it as a regressive force. What are the topics which fuel this debate?


The “Special Olympics strives,” according to its mission statement, “to create a better world by fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people.” Nevertheless, a criticism which has been consistently levied against the organisation is that it enshrines segregation. Acting as a barrier to its participants engaging in external sporting events, the Special Olympics purportedly institutionalises a separation between athletes with and without an intellectual disability. The Special Olympics’ Official General Rules state that every individual with an intellectual disability may partake in its activities. Persons not meeting this criterion, therefore, are unable to participate.

Issues of exclusion, nonetheless, pivot around perspective. Aligning focus towards the Olympics illustrates this point. Given its etymology and structures, the Special Olympics naturally draws comparison with its older cousin. Some commentators find an absence of references to intellectual disability in the Olympic Charter noteworthy. Effective as of 2 August 2015, this document defines participation as open to those who comply with the charter and World Anti-Doping Code, who uphold the conditions outlined by the International Olympic Committee and rules of the International Federation, and who were entered to the Olympics by their National Olympic Committee.

Disability is only mentioned twice in the Olympic Charter. Furthermore, the employment of this term is used in relation to the executive organs of the organisation rather than prospective athletes. Specifically, they refer to the capacity of the President of the International Olympic Committee to execute the duties of their office and the National Olympic Committee’s contractual obligations in relation to an athlete suffering a serious injury. In short, there are no ostensible prohibitions to an individual with an intellectual disability competing in the Olympics.

Despite silence in the Olympics’ official literature, it may be contended that the very existence of the Special Olympics discourages persons with an intellectual disability from engaging with other sporting platforms. Felt to be the most appropriate sporting option, such people are channelled into the organisation’s activities. The psychological impact, as it were, of the Special Olympics represents the real blocking mechanism.

Subscription to this view is made difficult for a number of reasons. William E. MacLean Jr’s stance against notions of segregation provides an example. This former volunteer coach demonstrates that a Special Olympics initiative known as United Sports was incepted in 1989. United Sports provides a platform for athletes with and without an intellectual disability to compete alongside one another. Taking exception to certain commentators glossing over this programme, MacLean Jr points to its success in attracting some 150,000 members worldwide.

Statistical information provides another point of contention. C. N. Harada and G. N. Siperstein conducted a survey of American Special Olympic participants and their families in 2009. This research revealed that 48% of these athletes engaged in three hours or more of sporting activities outside the confines of Special Olympic structures.

The above evidence seems to imply that a significant proportion of Special Olympic athletes have access to an independent sporting setting. This number grows when one considers the presumably numerous cases of individuals training or practicing for less than the three hour threshold. Thus, it has been contended that the factors preventing an individual with an intellectual disability competing in sporting occasions divorced from the Special Olympics are not institutionalised. Bodies like the Olympics do not place restrictions on participation and the Special Olympics does not command a monopoly over sporting activities. The latter, by means of the United Sports initiative, encourages the joint participation of athletes possessive and not possessive of an intellectual disability.


Academics E. A. Polloway and J. D. Smith argue that press coverage of the games serves to reinforce negative stereotypes surrounding intellectual disability. Wrapped up in the “self-righteousness” of its cause, the Special Olympics evokes emotions of sympathy and pity through its depiction in the media. This in turn affects public perception of the organisation and its athletes.

Such stereotypes often inform the treatment of individuals with intellectual disabilities. The terms sympathy and pity are sometimes associated with an excessive emphasis on care. While persons with an intellectual disability may require support from members of the public, extending this obligation too forcefully can be debilitating. These individuals become the focus of care in their community and by default, an inequality arises. They are divorced from the typical social structures of their locality. This denies, as Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol defines: “full and effective participation … in society.”

The specific vantage point of Polloway and Smith’s argument, buoyed by the concurrent views of other scholars, is, however, contested. It places paramount importance on the imprint the Special Olympics makes on the public domain. The impact on its athletes, though a concern, is presented as neglected by their opponents. In this regard, the psychological impression left on an individual who participates in the games has been emphasised. The findings of Clare Crawford, Jana Burns and Bruce Ferni, for instance, were published in Research in Developmental Disabilities this year. Driven by the interrelation between intellectual disability and low self-esteem, the group compared the emotional well-being of 101 persons who were members of the Special Olympics, of Mencap Sport and who were subscribed to neither.

Crawford, Burns and Ferni observed that “self-esteem was found to be a significant predictor of group membership, those in the [Special Olympics] having the highest self-esteem.” Not only evidence for the corroboration between participation in sport and positive mental health, this would seem to reinforce the psychological benefits of engagement in the Special Olympics.

Having established positive by-products, the belief that the negative characterisation of the Special Olympics is a result of outside agents becomes partially validated. It may be asserted that these stereotypes are transmitted mostly by media outlets. Accepting this theory as accurate, a cultural reorientation in the press could provide the breathing space for more positive associations to grow. This may eliminate the damaging impressions that many people unintentionally adopt on matters relating to the Special Olympics.


Certain quarters maintain that the worth of the Special Olympics is dubious. This is in light of its athletes failing to acquire sufficient functional skills. Touro University academic, Keith Storey, queries: “How functional are some events, for example, the softball throw where the participant throws to a spot on the ground, rather than to a person?” The lack of practical applications for this and similar exercises appears to be Storey’s concern.

Outlining his stance in a 2008 publication, Storey’s conjecturing doubtless revolves around what the purpose of the Special Olympics ought to be. Seemingly, he places significance on the cultivation of relevant motor skills. The organisation should supplement the development of its athletes in this field. On this issue, the Special Olympics is apparently failing.

Arguments on the practical achievements of the organisation are varied. Many take issue with Storey’s criticisms. It can be difficult to think, they assert, of a sport whose mechanical requirements translate directly in daily life. The throwing of a ball, whether to a delineated target or an awaiting individual, does not necessarily enhance one’s physical capacity in any outside contexts. In addition, functionality is not something which is stressed in the Olympics so why then should it be made an issue solely when considering the Special Olympics?  Regardless, membership of a squad or panel – on a local, regional or indeed national scale – ferments the growth of abstract qualities such as teamwork and sportsmanship. Some observers contend these values should be foremost in debates surrounding developmental outcomes for Special Olympic athletes.


L. and L. G. Calhoun have argued that the grouping of individuals with intellectual disabilities by age bracket for sporting events positively affects their perception among members of the public. In this respect, they highlight the Special Olympics’ practice of mixing young and old athletes as having a damaging effect.

The Special Olympics’ position on this topic is clear. “With our 30-plus Olympic-style sports,” its mission statement outlines, “we offer adults and children with intellectual disabilities many ways to be involved in their communities, many ways to show who they really are.”  Here is a strong declaration to accommodate all age groups under its umbrella of activities. The practicalities of carrying out this promise are, nevertheless, challenging to meet. Those who possess an intellectual disability sometimes exhibit a disparity between their age and intellectual capacity. Consequently, the strict grouping of athletes by age, which is standard practice in most sporting movements, is not wholly applicable to the Special Olympics.    

Acknowledging the problems delineating between Special Olympics athletes, there is some justification in Calhoun and Calhoun’s supposition. Witnessing a child compete alongside an adult may lead to the latter’s abilities and strengths being unfairly dismissed. And if this impression is transferred beyond sporting circles, adults with intellectual disabilities could be treated as children in exchanges with members of their communities. In such instances, being a meaningful member of one’s society, which is bound up in the expectations placed upon people appropriate to age, is made very difficult.

Commentators who are possessive of such a conclusion are implored by some to temper their thinking with corresponding examples. In the ephemeral world of professional gymnastics, the average age of competitors is a mere 16. Therefore, the mixing of adults with children in elite sporting situations is not unheard of. Granted, the same perceptions would not necessarily be equated with, for example, a gymnast in their twenties, who does not possess an intellectual disability, participating in a competition with somebody in their teens. Does this, however, represent a cultural issue which is in need of remedying?


The ability to exercise control over life choices is often emphasised in supports provided for persons with intellectual disabilities. Such inputs seek to extend this principle broadly and, as such, encompass sporting activities. When contemplating this point, David DiLeo labels the Special Olympics a “Disability Industrial Complex”. This term is used to describe an organisation which, under the veil of promoting freedom of choice, serves only the needs of the professionals it employs and deprives the people it interacts with rights of abstention. If this definition is to be believed, participants of the Special Olympics are, at times, coerced into partaking in its activities and are ill-informed with respect to alternate sporting opportunities.

DiLeo’s interpretation of the Special Olympics’ function diverges with the objectives of programmes it has launched. The Athlete Leadership and Global Messenger initiatives hope to witness Special Olympians fulfill roles “as leaders and spokespeople respected in their communities.” In such positions, “athletes are trained to engage in policy discussions and to articulate their opinions to community and government leaders.” These programmes are operational in 67 countries and are developed “at a grass-roots level”. Furthermore, some of those availing of these schemes become Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers whereby representing the Special Olympics and their countries in a public relations capacity.

There is, resultantly, a division of opinion between official Special Olympics outlets and critics of the organisation on the subject of self-determination. One side asserts that the views of the athletes are given a platform for expression. Another suggests that, although a culture of athlete independence is forwarded, the Special Olympics denies its participants meaningful choice on sporting matters.  Proponents of this view maintain that many athletes with an intellectual disability do not have exposure to sporting settings divorced from the Special Olympics. They cannot, therefore, make truly informed decisions in relation to such issues.

It is difficult to completely style the Special Olympics as either progressive or regressive. There is evidence substantiating and refuting both of these characterisations. Perhaps a more prosaic labelling is appropriate. The significant issue is whether the shortcomings of the Special Olympics are resultant of its associated ideologies, structures and practices. Deciding on if these areas require attention is paramount to the future development of the organisation and its 4.4 million athletes.

Illustration by Sarah Morel.