On Its 50th Anniversary, Special Olympics Returns to Chicago Roots

The 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics returns to where it all started—Chicago.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics, which highlights the exceptional talents of individuals with intellectual disabilities, Chicago will host a series of events and honors from July 17 to July 21 including the lighting of the Eternal Flame of Hope Monument, first-ever Special Olympics Unified Cup presented by Toyota, and the Global Day of Inclusion & Concert.

Athletes with and without intellectual disabilities from around the globe will compete at Toyota Park in Chicago during the Special Olympics Unified Cup. A total of 24 teams, male and female, with athletes from countries like Kenya, China, Korea, Mexico and Uruguay and more, will compete in the football (soccer) tournament.

This year, ESPN will broadcast final matches live on ESPN2. The tournament is a step toward more unified competitions, said Dave Breen, President and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois, adding that this year’s competitions and festivities give Illinois and Chicago a chance to show off their cultural and social highlights.

“We’re trying to create a world of inclusion and acceptance,” Breen said. “We’re really excited about showing the abilities of these athletes coming together with athletes without disabilities to play. It truly is like our World Cup.”

Runners with and without intellectual disabilities will carry the Flame of Hope torch during the four-mile LETR Commemorative Run in downtown Chicago on July 20. The commemorative torch run, led by law enforcement officers and Special Olympic athletes, will conclude with the ceremonial lighting of the Eternal Flame of Hope Monument, a 30-foot monument honoring the Special Olympics designed by Chicago-born artist Richard Hunt.

“There are 110,000 [Special Olympics] competitions that go on around the world on an annual basis, so it never stops. It never sleeps. The eternal flame symbolizes that,” Breen said. “The courage, the dedication, and the sportsmanship of the athletes—that’s always burning inside of them.”

The first Special Olympics took place at Soldier Field in 1968, a pivotal year in American history.  This year at Soldier Field, Special Olympics athletes, along with their friends and families, will celebrate the Global Day of Inclusion & Concert, which calls upon cities to become more inclusive.

“We’re hoping that people will come out during the week and the weekend and get involved with some remarkable individuals that will really impact their lives [in] the future,” Breen said.

Want to help the Special Olympics make its 50th-anniversary celebration a success?

Here’s how you can volunteer