Flame of Hope History

The Flame of Hope dates back to the 1960s, when the future for people with intellectual disabilities was anything but bright.

This was an age of routine institutionalization; it was a time when stigma associated with intellectual disability was extreme, as it had been for many years. “From place to place, from century to century, people with intellectual disabilities have been dehumanized, marginalized, abused, rejected, and killed, their families left to despair alone, struggling with the specter of shame and ridicule,” writes Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver in a history of the era.

In those days, there seemed to be very little hope for this neglected population. Then, in 1961, newly elected U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced that attention to and research about intellectual disability had been “too long postponed” — and would become a national priority in the USA. This initiative would result in the first major legislation to address intellectual disability and to develop federal programs in special education, teacher training and related care. In the 1960s, a brighter future began for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

And so in 1968, at the very first Special Olympics International Summer Games in 1968, nearly 1,000 athletes from 26 U.S. states and Canada gathered for more than 200 events in track and field, swimming and field hockey. A highlight of the Opening Ceremony was the sight of a teen runner who carried a torch to light a 45-foot high “John F. Kennedy Flame of Hope.”

A half-century later, the Flame of Hope tradition continues to inspire at Special Olympics events worldwide. From that humble 1968 beginning, Special Olympics local, state, national and regional competitions now number more than 100,000 a year — plus World Summer or Winter Games every two years.