SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — More than 7,000 athletes, coaches, volunteers and family members will be attending the annual Rhode Island Special Olympics summer games this weekend.
Special Olympics was the vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver when she kicked off the first summer games in 1968. Now, 50 years later, her son Tim Shriver continues to carry the torch for the millions of athletes and volunteers who participate.
Tim Shriver, now the CEO of Special Olympics worldwide, attended the opening ceremony for Special Olympics of RI on Friday. He said it was an honor to be there for the 50th anniversary.
“The movement, at 50, seems old, seems like a big milestone, but in some ways we’re just getting started,” Tim Shriver said.
According to Tim Shriver, the organization’s main goal now is expanding unified sports in schools all over the world and teaching people with and without intellectual challenges to play together. He said Special Olympics is now in 172 countries with more than 5 million athletes participating worldwide.
Tim Shriver said he believes the organization was able to expand all over the world because the event is inspiring and want to join the movement.
“One of the things that’s miraculous about our athletes is that they remind us of what’s good in all of us, they remind us of a common human spirit, a common human dignity, a common human giftedness” Tim Shriver said.
He said the inclusiveness of the event is what helps drive Special Olympics forward each year.
“We don’t want our athletes to just be seen simply as people who need support, but also people who can teach,” Tim Shriver said. “A lesson that the world is hungry for right now, that we can all get along and we can all learn to respect one another.”
CEO of Special Olympics of RI Dennis DeJesus said this year is big for the organization.
“It’s not the 49th, it’s not the 51st. We’re celebrating 50 years of inclusion and respect for those with intellectual disabilities,” DeJesus said.
DeJesus said there are approximately 1,500 athletes each year. He said over the years, the culture has changed when it comes to welcoming those with intellectual disabilities into the community.
“They work in our communities, they live in our communities, they go to school in our communities and that’s where they belong,” DeJesus said.
Opening ceremonies were held Friday evening. The athletes paraded into the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island with their teams.
The Special Olympics of Rhode Island torch was brought into the Ryan Center by representatives of the Law Enforcement Torch Run for police, fire and corrections. The torch was lit at the State House earlier in the day and made its way down to URI through several communities.
Maryellen Powers, the 50th Anniversary Global Messenger and member of the Bristol County Baysiders said the event has become more and more inclusive over the years.
“Just from my experience, we’ve become a lot more inclusive over the years,” Powers said. “Just the way people generally are with us now. So different than when I was in high school, back in the mid 90s.”
Chris Lucier, an athlete participating in not only the Special Olympics of RI but also the national Special Olympics, said the milestone shows how the event has widened the playing field for all ability levels.
“It’s a big family reunion. Everyone loves one another and supports one another,” Lucier said. “It’s the greatest family in the world and not only here at URI but at local area games as well. It’s just one big happy family reunion that I get to spend with my friends and family.”
Athletes will compete in everything from track and field to softball to swimming this weekend. All of the events are free for anyone to attend.