Today there are over 20,000 Canadians athletes with a mental disability, and the numbers are growing.

It is hard to believe that in the 1950s and 1960s there were no fitness programs for them.

At that time, the Canadian-born concept of the Special Olympics was introduced by Dr. Frank Hayden, of London, Ontario.

Dr. Hayden was always interested in fitness and sports. His research showed him there would be benefits from introducing sports programs for athletes with a mental disability;  it would not only enhance their physical development, but also their social and emotional skills.

The concept of Special Olympics began in the 1960ís when Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a day camp for the mentally challenged. Her experiences taught her that sports training, culminating in Olympic-style athletic competition, enabled people with a mental disability to build self-esteem.

In the 1940s, work with mentally disabled athletes was initiated by their parents; they pushed for education for their children. At that time their children were banned from schools. Harry "Red" Foster was a tireless promoter for the disabled. In 1954 he established the Harry E. Foster Foundation.

Harry was an outstanding sportsman, a famous broadcaster, a successful businessman, and humanitarian. He worked steadfastly for people who were mentally disabled; his work had already brought him international acclaim. He was inspired by his motherís devotion to his brother Jackie, who was both blind and mentally disabled. Mr. Foster began to devote much of his time, energy, and wealth to addressing the problem faced by the mentally disabled.

It was during a chance meeting between Dr. Frank Hayden and Harry Foster that Canadaís effort in Special Olympics truly began. They were discussing the upcoming U.S. games and Dr. Hayden suggested that Foster send a Floor Hockey team to the Games in Chicago. Dr. Hayden recalls Foster standing in Soldierís Field in Chicago and turning to him and saying,

"Frank, this is wonderful! We should have this in Canada."
This was the defining moment for Canadian Special Olympics. The Games, based on the modern-Olympic spirit and tradition complete with the torch and medals, truly embodies the words of the Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin: 
"The important thing is not to win, but to take part. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well."
From these words evolved the Special Olympics athletes oath......
"Let me win, But if I cannot win, Let me be brave in the attempt."

On the 11th of June 1969 over 1,400 young athletes from 49 Canadian cities competed in the first Canadian Special Olympics in Toronto. From then on the Games began in earnest. Now, over 20,000 mentally disabled Canadians participate in Special Olympics, from the local to the world level.

Dr. Hayden is now semi-retired, but his tireless efforts have made the Special Olympics an everyday activity.

Page design: Dr David Williams