Forty-nine years ago, about one thousand athletes with intellectual disabilities from the US and Canada competed in the first Special Olympics International Summer Games in Chicago. Today marks the anniversary of the games, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The Special Olympics hold an important and cherished place in the hearts of disabilities studies scholar Michael Bérubé and his son Jamie, who took part as an athlete in the swimming races. In the following passage from his memoir Life as Jamie Knows It: An Exceptional Child Grows Up, written with Jamie’s participation, Bérubé recalls how competing in the games deepened his son’s sense of self-understanding during his adolescence. As a father, he, too, learned a new aspect of his son’s personality.
In 2009, Jamie entered serious solo competition for the first time: Special Olympics swimming meets at nearby universities. Now, when I say “serious competition” and “Special Olympics” in the same sentence, I am aware that there are people who might snicker or guffaw. Anyone inclined to snicker or guffaw should read Timothy Shriver’s account of the first Special Olympics, held in Chicago in 1968. Chicago in 1968 is usually remembered for something else, but this seems important too.
All over Soldier Field, children of scorn and lonely teenagers tried their best and won. People who had so little to give gave the one thing they had: their hearts. And those around them were given a chance to unleash their spirits, too, by cheering them on, by watching their bravery come to life, by meeting their smiles with eyes opened to loveliness. On that day, winning had nothing to do with beating anyone and everything to do with playing like no one is judging even though everyone is watching. Sports had never seen anything like it. No one had.
. . . On July 20, 1968, for the first time in history, people with intellectual disabilities were celebrated as great individuals by others who discovered their gifts in the joy of sports. Gifts! The idea of Olympic triumph, of winning, of bravery, of being gifted—none of these qualities had ever been conferred on these human beings. But on the first day, there was something in their persistence, something in their emotional tenderness, in the uninhibited openness to others that burst to life and awakened those who could see to a different way of defining what it means to win.
In disability studies, we tend to be skeptical of the so-called “supercrip” and allergic to any suggestion that people with disabilities can be inspiring. But it really is quite difficult to go to a Special Olympics meet, of whatever size, and not be inspired by the passion of the athletes and the dedication of the legions of volunteers. When you realize that only fifty years ago, almost no one believed that “the retarded” could participate in athletic events, you realize just how extraordinary Eunice Shriver’s vision was. And if you’re me, you thank her family—and all those volunteers.
So when I say that Jamie took part in serious competition, I am not saying that Jamie’s Special Olympics swimming career can stack up against the times posted by nondisabled swimmers his age, any more than I would claim that 14.82 seconds is an impressive time for a fifty-meter dash. Here’s what I’m saying.
In his first meet, in April 2009, at St. Francis University in central Pennsylvania, Jamie opened by winning gold medals in the 25m and 50m freestyle. Heats included only three or four swimmers, segregated by qualifying times; there were dozens of heats. This practice is called “divisioning,” and it is at the heart of Special Olympics, allowing athletes to compete at whatever level is appropriate to them. Then for his third event, the 25m backstroke, the meet officials combined his heat—consisting of three teenagers who had posted qualifying times of about forty or forty-five seconds—with that of two adult swimmers whose times were thirty-two or thirty-three seconds. Jamie’s best time in practice runs had been something like forty-three seconds.
I filmed the race like a dutiful dad; in fact, I bought a digital videocam expressly for that purpose. But I noted with alarm that at the halfway mark, Jamie trailed the field. I did manage to capture the beginning of his surge, but as he got closer to my end of the pool, my camera angle focused more exclusively on him, so I didn’t immediately realize that when he touched up, he did so in first place—for the third time that morning. He had overtaken the other four swimmers in only twelve or thirteen meters.
Not until later that night, after I had replayed the race a few times on my laptop, did I discover that Jamie had briefly looked around in the middle of the pool and found that he was trailing—whereupon he had reached down and found another gear, churning his arms and legs frantically to beat his fellow swimmers. He also beat his personal best time by just over ten seconds, which suggested to me that his “personal best” was a function of his relations to other swimmers—or, in more colloquial sports talk, he rose to the level of the competition. And it wasn’t simply a question of winning: in the statewide games two months later, the best he managed was a silver in the 50m freestyle—but that was all right with him, because he shaved another couple of seconds off his personal best in the event. Citius, altius, fortius. That’s what it’s all about. Well, that and living apart from his parents for two nights in a Penn State dormitory. Jamie thought that was pretty great, too. And he bonded with his roommate, a talented young man on the autism spectrum.
So by 2009, I learned that I had an eighteen-year-old with Down syndrome with a fierce competitive streak. At one point he even asked me how to spell “competitive.” Who knew this personality trait was in the cards? Even Jamie himself was unaware of it until he entered adolescence. It feeds his sense of self-esteem, it helps to keep him in shape, and it affords him some pride in his accomplishments. What’s not to like?
About the Author
Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State University. The author of ten books, including The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read, he lives with his family in State College, Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.