During the 1987 International Special Olympics at the University of Notre Dame, legendary sportswriter Bob Verdi quietly arrived in South Bend, Ind., and came away with a perspective lost on struggling scribes trying to meet deadlines with typewriters and hotel fax machines.
The Chicago Tribune’s “In the Wake of the News” columnist observed that spending a day or two at Special Olympics events causes one to wonder: “Exactly who is handicapped here, them or us?”
Last week’s 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Special Olympics movement in Chicago gives us reason to pause, ponder and ask again: “Them or us?”
Special Olympics has installed another glass ceiling, introducing a new moment for change entering the next 50 years or, at the least, the next five years.
The “Inclusion Revolution” initiative introduces itself this way: for 50 years, Special Olympics has been building a movement to break down barriers—both on and off the field—in health and education, all through the power of sport. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, we launch a five-year campaign to inspire action and ultimately end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
“The Revolution is Inclusion,” and the spirit of that message beckons us and our potential as a complete society.
On July 21, Chicago Park District CEO and local resident Mike Kelly had the keys to Soldier Field, and his invitation was all-inclusive, designed for every Chicagoan to join athletes from around the world to play sports and symbolically “break down barriers” on the same field that gladiators Walter Payton, Dick Butkus and Dan Hampton played and on which the first Special Olympics games were held.
An implicit civility exists during any gathering of Special Olympics athletes that miraculously washes over all those blessed to be in their presence. On July 21, the type of wind gusts that drives field-goal kickers mad at Soldier Field flipped a red-and-white tent up into the air and on its crown. A dozen people ran after it, had it up and staked back down in minutes.
Also, on that Saturday, in a stadium located up Lake Michigan, many of our cheese-head neighbors gave Brewers reliever Josh Hader a standing ovation on his first appearance on the mound after deflecting attention away from racists remarks he made seven years ago as a teen. We can only hope that they were fans supporting an adult who should not be demonized for his limited view of the world as a 17-year-old.
I’m not so sure. Much of what is said at any kitchen table in Anytown, USA, makes its way out into daily banter, tavern talk and, today, social media.
Wisconsin did deliver the cheese for Trump, a presidential candidate who continues to lack civility in office and who exploited his campaign stage to physically mock a person with a disability during a session with the media.
Maybe, after a pending lawsuit is decided, the measuring stick in Wisconsin will come out, and we’ll more clearly discern the Brewers fans’ “standing ovation” intent.
In coming months, local basketball star Sterling Brown will pursue a lawsuit over his NBA salary because he can where others cannot. The young black man who played at Proviso East was Tasered, handcuffed and arrested by Milwaukee police in January. One officer is seen standing on the Maywood resident’s ankle after the Taser is deployed and after the athlete’s legs have gone lifeless.
After the videotape was released, the Milwaukee police chief “condemned” the department’s actions that were a result of a mere parking violation. If Brown wins his lawsuit and creates awareness, will he be met with cheesy contempt or a clearly genuine ovation as he enters a Bucks game?
Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation for inclusion, evidenced by the Kennedy and Shriver families book-ending the Special Olympics’ first and current chapters, both featuring the gracious and humble Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, whose vision as a teacher and park district employee picked up steam with money and influence.
Burke arrived solo on July 19—outside the spotlight—to contribute to an oral history for a Special Olympics’ “Legacy” video series. One at a time, athletes, coaches and volunteers who were at the first games in 1968 tried to articulate what was left in the rearview mirror so many seasons ago. They all recalled a swimming pool in Soldier Field and a Chicago eager to embrace a revolutionary form of empowerment of the human spirit.
Mostly, the common thread in the observations was an answer to Verdi’s question.
“I’ve learned more from them,” they said, “than they’ve learned from me.”
Lacing up gym shoes, shooting free-throws or rolling a bocce ball are activities Special Olympics athletes get from us and take to their full potential for a victory, whether it’s from a wheelchair or from an athlete with limited vision.
Those athletes teach us—if we are willing—to be colorblind, all-inclusive and content with coming in 10th or last, as long as we’ve tried our best.
As a society of the whole, we don’t seem to be learning from our own mistakes. Bigotry, exclusion and bullying are in vogue again because misguided voters unleashed on the world the ugliest of our country’s traits. We handicap ourselves with minds that are capped and not inclusive in spirit and action.
I suggest we take the pledge of the Special Olympics athletes and follow their lead into the years to come, if not for us, for our children and their children.
I pledge to look out for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied.
I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion.
Editor’s note: Bill Figel is a Morgan Park resident and owner of Figel Public Relations.