Special Olympics, international program of year-round sports training and athletic competition for people with mental retardation. It places equal emphasis on both training and competition. Special Olympics was founded in 1968 by American civic worker Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of former president John F. Kennedy. The program serves more than 1 million athletes in more than 140 countries.
Special Olympics Games are patterned after the Olympic Games and feature more than 20 summer and winter sports, including bowling, gymnastics, skiing (downhill and cross-country), soccer, swimming, tennis, and track and field. Unlike the Olympic Games, Special Olympics competitions are held throughout the year, with more than 15,000 events taking place annually. Chapters throughout the world hold their own Games each year or every two years.
Chapters and programs in Canada, the United States, and other countries join together every two years for the World Games, which alternate between competitions for winter and summer sports. The 1999 World Summer Games were held in the so-called Triangle region of North Carolina, near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The 2001 World Winter Games will take place in Anchorage, Alaska.
Additional Special Olympics programs have been developed in recent years. Special Olympics Unified Sports brings together athletes with and without mental retardation to train and compete on the same team. The Special Olympics Mega-Cities Program serves athletes who live in major urban communities. Other programs include Partners Clubs, Sports Partnerships, Motor Activities Training Program, Athletes for Outreach, and the Officials Program for Athletes.
Special Olympics is financed primarily by grassroots fundraising efforts, which are directed by state chapters and national programs. Individuals, organizations, corporations, and foundations also contribute to Special Olympics programs. Special Olympics International (SOI), located in Washington, D.C., serves as the organization's headquarters.