By Julissa Catalan
President Barack Obama held a star-studded celebration at the White House last week to honor the anniversary of the creation of the Special Olympics.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver—sister of President John F. Kennedy, mother of Maria Shriver and a long-time advocate for disabled adults and children—created the Special Olympics in 1962 as Camp Shriver. It evolved into the Special Olympics in 1968.
Close to 50 years after the first Special Olympics, athletes and celebrities like Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michelle Kwan and Andy Roddick joined the President and First Lady in honoring the event.
“What all these people represent is what the Special Olympics is all about: overcoming obstacles with love and kindness and generosity and health competition,” Obama said. “Those are values that everybody can use. Those are values that the Special Olympics can teach all of us.”
Obama added, “It’s about pride and it’s about teamwork and it’s about friendship. And it’s about treating everybody with dignity, and giving everybody a chance.
The President singled out seven athletes at the gala, based not only on their achievements in the Special Olympics but also for their work in the community. They each told their stories.
Loretta Claiborne told the celebrity-filled room the advice her mother used to receive. “Rita, institutionalize her,” people would tell her mother. “She’s not going to have any value.”
Claiborne was born with intellectual disabilities. Not only did the Special Olympics open the door for her to excel in athletics, but they also helped her to develop her mental skills. Today, Claiborne holds two honorary doctorate degrees, speaks four languages and has run 26 marathons.
“When I look back, I think about all the things that can make this change through a unified generation,” Claiborne said. “The days of being left out are over.”
Ricardo Thornton—who was recently appointed by Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities—told the audience he had spent time in two institutions but that the Special Olympics had changed his life.
“We are here to put an end to the injustice and captivity and intolerance,” he said.
Tim Harris—who has Down syndrome—left his seat during the President’s remarks to give him a hug. The President responded by saying, “Presidents need encouragement once in a while too. … Thank you, Tim.”
More than 4 million athletes around the world participate in the Special Olympics, which feature about 80,000 events per year.
Athletes stood on chairs chanting, “Play unified, live united,” as the President and First Lady cheered them on.
The Obamas will serve as honorary chairs of the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles next year. About 7,000 athletes from 170 countries are expected to take part.