Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Eunice Kennedy Shriver's Olympic Legacy

When Eunice Shriver was growing up — the middle child in her famous family — she developed a passion for competition and sports.

"I was always trying to find my brothers, not my sisters," she says. "I wanted to play football, and I was very good. I was always the quarterback."

Those football-playing brothers included Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Shriver's love of sports led her to later start the Special Olympics, which gave people with mental retardation the opportunity for athletic competition.

Today, Shriver is still working — every day — as an advocate for people with mental retardation.

A Longtime Advocate

Shriver walks gingerly down the marble halls of a Capitol office building, holding onto the arm offered by her son, Tim Shriver. She's a pencil-thin woman, in a camel-hair coat with a fur collar.

She walks into an office to meet Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). Shriver quickly takes off her watch and puts it on the table, to keep the meeting short. It's also a friendly warning for Tim; he runs Special Olympics now.

"She's already telling me we have to end the meeting," Tim Shriver jokes to the senator. "We haven't even started yet."

"You're on a stopwatch," Harkin replies.

Harkin is a long-time supporter. It's a busy day, but he meets with the Shrivers for 15 minutes.

The Shrivers and their delegation are on Capitol Hill to seek several million dollars to expand health care and other programs run by Special Olympics.

Eunice Shriver was the fifth of nine Kennedy children. Edward (from left), Jeanne, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary and John stand with their parents, Rose and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, in London in 1937. Not pictured is the eldest Kennedy child, Joseph Patrick Jr.
/ Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images
Eunice Shriver was the fifth of nine Kennedy children. Edward (from left), Jeanne, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary and John stand with their parents, Rose and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, in London in 1937. Not pictured is the eldest Kennedy child, Joseph Patrick Jr.

A Family History

No family has done more than the Kennedys to change negative attitudes about mental retardation. Back when having a family member with retardation was a source of secrecy and shame, President John Kennedy, in 1962, spoke of his family's own experience. One of the Kennedy children, Rosemary, was born with mild mental retardation.

"Those of us who have seen children live in the shadow [of mental retardation]," he said, "know that a country as rich as ours can't possibly justify this neglect."

President Kennedy set up research centers on mental retardation. Robert Kennedy inspected squalid state mental institutions. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act. And it was Eunice Kennedy Shriver who was always on the phone nagging her more famous brothers to take action.

"I had enormous affection for Rosie," Shriver says. "If I [had] never met Rosemary, never known anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out? Because nobody accepted them anyplace."

Rosemary's disability worsened after she had a lobotomy, an operation that was meant to help her. She spent most of her life at a private institution in Wisconsin and died in 2005. Eunice Shriver visited regularly and made mental retardation a constant cause.

Above, Shriver and a child play catch in Paris in preparation for the 1970 games.  Today, the Special Olympics includes more than 2.25 million people in 160 countries.
/ Liaison/Getty Images
Liaison/Getty Images
Above, Shriver and a child play catch in Paris in preparation for the 1970 games. Today, the Special Olympics includes more than 2.25 million people in 160 countries.

"Eunice is a remarkable woman," says history professor Edward Shorter, author of The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation.

"It was extraordinary of her to conceive that she, too, could play a role comparable to that of her brothers," Shorter says. "Her leadership role would be in the area of mental retardation rather than on the big political stage, because in the 1950s, she couldn't get on that political stage. Women weren't tolerated there."

'Never as a Burden'

Shriver saw that just as political roles were limited for her, many more opportunities were limited for people with mental retardation. Shorter says she rejected the role of society woman and took over the family foundation.

"She had the genius to see that she, in fact, was capable of major achievements helping these kids, and that's what she did. She dedicated her life to it," says Shorter.

She also opened her home. In 1962, an exhausted mother got Shriver on the phone. The woman wanted to know what to do because no summer camp would accept her child with mental retardation.

"I said, 'You don't have to talk about it anymore. You come here a month from today. I'll start my own camp. No charge to go into the camp, but you have to get your kid here, and you have to come and pick your kid up.' [I] said, 'Thanks very much,' and I hung up the phone."

For years, Eunice Shriver ran that summer camp — for no charge — at Timberlawn, the family estate in Maryland. She would get in the pool and teach kids to swim. Her own children — Robert, Maria, Tim, Mark and Anthony — were just little kids in those days.

"Talk to Timmy," says Shriver, "[He'll] tell you horror stories about how they were left in the house and nobody to play with because [I] was out teaching swimming."

There were scores of noisy campers, counselors, horses, soccer games and obstacle courses. Lyndon Johnson came once. Robert McNamara, too.

Tim Shriver says Camp Shriver--for all its chaos--is a big reason all his siblings stay involved in the issue.

"The great gift that we had as kids," Tim Shriver says, "was never to be introduced to disability or intellectual disability as a cause but more as an activity. Never as a burden, but rather as a joy. Our introduction to people with special needs was to swim or to play kickball or to go horseback riding. Part of her genius [has] always been to create things that are appealing, create opportunities that are joyful that people want to join, that make things fun."

The Games

That summer camp led Eunice Shriver and her husband, Sargent, to start the Special Olympics. Eunice Shriver opened the first national games. It was the summer of 1968, in Chicago, just weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and before the riotous Democratic convention.

"In ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips," Shriver told the athletes, "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt. Let us begin the Olympics."

What began that year has grown. The 2007 World Games will be held in Shanghai. Eunice Shriver plans to be there, along with athletes from 160 countries.

In recent years, she hasn't always been on the cutting edge of issues. Other advocates and her sons pushed to make Special Olympics more than a once-a-year sporting event. It's now a place where participants get linked to health care and community programs and start lasting friendships.

At 85--rich and accomplished--she could retire or go on glamorous vacations.

But don't try telling Eunice Shriver to relax. When asked why she continues to work so tirelessly on the issue she replies: "Because it's so outrageous, still. In so many countries. They're not accepted in the schools. They're not accepted in play programs. They're just not accepted. So we have much to do."

And so Shriver keeps at it. The same week she lobbied senators for Special Olympics, Shriver also went to a congressional hearing and a gathering of governors. She met with the secretary of education and then with college presidents--to ask for education programs after high school.

Every year, Shriver brings a parent of a disabled child and someone who works in disabilities to Washington. They work on Capitol Hill for the year, then most go back to their states, where they have become a new generation of leaders.

Earlier this month, more than three dozen former Kennedy Fellows gathered in the ballroom of a Washington hotel to hold their first-ever reunion. There was a sense in the room that this might be a last chance to honor Shriver. She has been hospitalized several times; two years ago she had a small stroke.

Shriver stepped carefully to the podium. When she got there, she made clear that she will keep fighting for people with intellectual disabilities.

"We've got to be so proud of what our special friends do and their future," said Shriver, "Their possibility of really bringing to the world something that really resembles peace and hope and faith and love that's what they can do. And we're so proud of them. And we want to keep going all the time, the next 20 years. I'm going. You come with me?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Joseph Shapiro
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information