In the early sixties, testing of children with intellectual disabilities revealed that they were only half as physically fit as their non-disabled peers. It was assumed that their low fitness levels were a direct result of intellectual disabilities. A Toronto researcher and professor, Dr. Frank Hayden, questioned this assumption. Working with a control group of children on an intense fitness program, he demonstrated that, given the opportunity, people with intellectual disabilities could become physically fit and acquire the physical skills necessary to participate in sport. His research proved that low levels of fitness and lack of motor skills development in people with intellectual disabilities were a result of nothing more than a sedentary life style. In other words, their intellectual disabilities resulted in their exclusion from the kinds of physical activity and sports experience readily available to other children.
Inspired by his discoveries, Dr. Hayden began searching for ways to develop a national sports program for people with intellectual disabilities. It was a goal he eventually achieved, albeit not in Canada. His work came to the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Kennedy Foundation in Washington, D.C., and led to the creation of Special Olympics. The first sports competitions organized under the Special Olympics banner were held at Soldiers’s Field in Chicago in 1968. To ensure that Canada was represented, Dr. Hayden called on an old friend, Harry “Red” Foster.
The late Harry “Red” Foster was an outstanding sportsman, a famous broadcaster, a successful businessman and a humanitarian whose tireless work on behalf of people with an intellectual disability had already brought him international acclaim. Inspired by his mother’s devotion to his younger brother, who was both blind and intellectually disabled, Mr. Foster began early in his career to devote much of his time, energy and wealth to addressing the problems faced by individuals with an intellectual disability and their families.
Accompanying a floor hockey team from Toronto to those first Games in Chicago, “Red” was quick to see in Special Olympics a further opportunity to enhance the lives of Canadians with an intellectual disability. Upon returning to Canada he set about laying the foundation for the Special Olympics movement. The following summer, 1969, the first Special Olympics Canada event was held in Toronto. From that modest beginning, the Special Olympics movement quickly spread across the country and grew into the national sports organization it is today.
In 1985 the Automobile Dealers of Newfoundland and Labrador began their quest to bring Special Olympics to Newfoundland and Labrador. Many people agreed that Special Olympics was a great program, but until that point the right mix of people had not been assembled to allow the program to take a foothold.
That all changed when Sam Walters from RBC was approached. Sam had the right mix of corporate experience and contacts, as well as the ability to galvanize a passionate group of volunteers. Of course it was more than just Sam that made Special Olympics a reality; there was a core group of volunteers around him who were primary drivers in those early years.
That core group, led by the program’s first coaches Helen Bidgood and Kimberley Bowe went on to take four athletes (Bernadette Beehan, Jimmy Hunt, Sheilagh Murray and Margaret Rahal) to the 1986 National Games in Calgary, Alberta and eventually qualify one athlete (Bernadette), to compete at the World Games in 1987 in Southbend, Indiana. Following the National Games in December of 1986 the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of Special Olympics was officially incorporated. Since those humble beginnings, the organization has grown to reach over five hundred athletes and 250 volunteers in twenty-five different communities across the province.