Porto: A monumental legacy

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(HOST) Commentator Brian Porto has been thinking about the life and legacy of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

(PORTO) Newspaper sports sections have too many stories about bad behavior by athletes and fans.   But for a day or two recently, these stories gave way to inspiring reflections on the life of this country’s most important sports executive, Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died on August 11 at age 88.  Those reflections were bittersweet, including both sadness at Mrs. Shriver’s passing and joyous recollections of her selfless advocacy for mentally disabled children and adults.

Sports are full of unsung heroes – players who do not receive adulation, awards, or the highest salaries – but whose steady competence is indispensable to a championship season.   Mrs. Shriver was an unsung hero even in her own family, the famously sports-crazy and competitive Kennedy clan, which produced three senators and a president of the United States.   But despite brother Jack’s creation of the Peace Corps, brother Robert’s civil-rights work, and brother Ted’s legislative achievements in health care and education, Mrs. Shriver’s work on behalf of the mentally disabled may have a more lasting impact than the accomplishments of her brothers.   Senator Ted Kennedy said of his older sister in a 2007 interview: "If the test is what you’re doing that’s been helpful for humanity, you’d be hard pressed to find another member of the family who’s done more."

Mrs. Shriver’s legacy is monumental because she effected the greatest change of all, namely, the change of a culture.   She challenged the long-held belief, here and abroad, that mentally disabled persons belonged out of sight, in institutions, and she made her case by showing that they could derive the same physical, psychological, and social benefits from sport that anyone else could.

But cultural change comes slowly.   Sports opportunities for the mentally disabled started small, with "Camp Shriver," a backyard program conducted on Mrs. Shriver’s Maryland property.   In 1968, Camp Shriver became the "Special Olympics," and the first World Games were held that summer in Chicago, where 1,000 athletes competed.  By 1995, 7,000 athletes, including my nephew, competed at the World Games in New Haven, and in 2007, 7,500 competed in Shanghai, China.  Today, both winter and summer games are held, and Mrs. Shriver’s organization serves 3.1 million athletes in 175 countries.

Mrs. Shriver’s son Robert hit the proverbial nail on the head when he told an interviewer in 2004: "My mom never ran for office, and she changed the world.  Period.  End of story."  She surely did change the world, and she used sports to do it.  The world needs more sports heroes like Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

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