Special Olympics of Minnesota celebrates 50 years of sports competition and camaraderie in 2023. The program opened its doors as an accredited program of the Special Olympics in 1973, providing fun and competition for people with developmental disabilities.
Today Special Olympics Minnesota offers five annual statewide competitions, six regional competitions, almost 100 area events, training programs for 3,300 coaches and opportunities for 14,000 volunteers. Athletes can also take part in its Healthy Athletes and Athlete Leadership Programs. With 17 sports, there is certainly something for everyone.
It’s hard to believe that years ago, it was unheard of for people with any type of disabilities to enjoy sports as competitors. The Special Olympics have their roots in the Kennedy family’s work on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, which began in the 1950s and 1960s. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was an early proponent of sports and activities for people with disabilities, even holding a summer day camp and sports activities in her home’s backyard.
Shriver was the driving force behind her brother President John F. Kennedy’s White House panel on people with intellectual disabilities, and also led the work of her family’s Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. The foundation is named for the family’s eldest brother, who was killed in World War II.
The first major Special Olympics event was held in 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago, with 1,000 young athletes with developmental disabilities. The Kennedy Foundation and Chicago Park District sponsored the event, with 85 groups from 25 states competing.
Special Olympics competitions in Minnesota started a few years before the formation of Special Olympics Minnesota itself. We find some of the first newspaper references in the late 1960s. The early statewide sponsor was the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) Minnesota, working with the Kennedy Foundation. Some of the first state meets were held at Macalester College in St. Paul. The state had seven regions for athletes to compete in.
Some early athletes had “stars” in their eyes. In 1969, the Minnesota North Stars professional hockey team joined with the 11 other National Hockey League teams to launch an event at the Canadian Special Olympics.
The North Stars generously financed a trip for a Minnesota floor hockey team to compete in Toronto that June. Minnesota’s team would be chosen after a team tournament held at St. Louis Park High School. Pictures show boys wearing what looked like basketball uniforms and tennis shoes, playing with a small hoop or ring rather than a puck. The sport was more akin to ringette than floor hockey. No one wore helmets or protective gear.
It was an all-Owatonna final as the A team beat the B team from that community. Other teams were from Glen Lake and St. Louis Park. A 15-member all-tournament team was chosen to go to Canada.
North Stars Center Ray Cullen was named team coach, assisted by Owatonna coach Paul Heidrebrecht. The Minnesota team won three games and lost one in Canada. The North Stars provided uniforms, equipment and for other team needs. The team sponsored by the Montreal Canadiens won the first Special Olympics floor hockey title.
The North Stars continued to sponsor floor hockey teams for the Canadian Special Olympics for several more years.
Read more about the Special Olympics at https://www.specialolympics.org/about/history
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org