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 their 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, intellectually disabled people 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 intellectually disabled people. 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 Soldier’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 humanitarian whose tireless work on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities 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 intellectual disabilities 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 Canadian Special Olympics 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.