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On This Day in Chicago History: Soldier Field Hosts the First-Ever Special Olympics

Meredith Francis
A black and white image showing a group of people surrounding a long jumper at Soldier Field.
Children compete in a long jump event at the second Special Olympics at Soldier Field in 1970. The first Special Olympics was also held at Soldier Field two years prior. Image: ST-90004480-0028, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

Chicago’s Soldier Field has been home to all kinds of events in its nearly 100-year history. It has hosted downhill ski jumps; the so-called Super Bowl of Rock and countless other concerts; a 1966 civil rights rally with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and others; and, of course, home games for the Chicago Bears. (For now, anyway).

On July 20, 1968, Soldier Field hosted the first-ever Special Olympics. Some 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada participated in the event. It marked a big shift, according to the Special Olympics, because, “In the 1960s, children and adults with intellectual disabilities lived in the shadows of society. They were hidden away in homes or institutions.” The games celebrated these individuals, and gave them a platform to have fun without stigma.

The Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. A young physical education teacher named Anne McGlone Burke, who would go on to become Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, helped organize the Chicago games. The Special Olympics has long since expanded, with more participating countries, other events, and outreach programs.

The first games featured over 200 events, including swimming, track and field competitions, and hockey. The Chicago History Museum photo above, which is from the 1970 Special Olympics held at Soldier Field, shows one such event: the long jump.