The winds were cold and brisk the morning Frank Hayden watched an outdoor soccer game on the grounds of a Burlington, Ont., high school that bears his name.
“It was somewhat chilly but the kids were engaged in sport,” says Hayden, a former physical education and kinesiology professor whose last academic post was as director of physical education and athletics at McMaster University in Hamilton. “That’s all that mattered.”
Being engaged in sport has certainly mattered to the tens of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities whose lives changed because of an idea Hayden conceived in the mid-1960s. That idea – which Hayden had laid out in a written, detailed plan – became the foundation for the Special Olympics.
“We view him as the pioneer of the movement,” says Sharon Bollenbach, chief executive officer at Special Olympics Canada, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “And today, he still attends all of our national Games and is very engaged with the athletes, who all know and love him.”
Arthur Rea, a 47-year-old forklift driver from Erin, Ont., and a Special Olympics athlete since 1993, can attest to that. He remembers meeting Hayden and his wife, Marion, years ago and being asked to drop the formalities.
“He said, ‘Arthur, just call us Frank and Marion,’” recalls Rea, who competed in swimming, softball, soccer and power lifting in his early 20s and now plays curling and golf as part of the Games. “Actually the athletes call them Mom and Dad – they really are great people.”
Hayden was a researcher at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., when he came up with the seed of an idea that grew into the Special Olympics. Before Western, he had worked for 2½ years at University of Toronto, where he had researched the link between exercise and fitness in children with intellectual disabilities.
During a meeting in Ottawa with the federal committee in charge of planning Canada’s 100th birthday, Hayden proposed a national centennial Summer Games for children with intellectual disabilities.
“The idea was we would have two years leading up to the centennial to get the kids ready, and maybe during this training period we could have regional and provincial Games before the national Games in 1967,” recalls Hayden, who now lives in Oakville, Ont., with Marion. “I had all the details worked out, including budget and location, which I thought should be at the CNE [Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto].”
Hayden’s proposal created excitement among the committee members, but the national centennial Games he had envisaged never happened. Shortly after that meeting, however, he got a call from William Freeberg, a recreation professor at Southern Illinois University and advisor to the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, whose mandate was to support people with intellectual disabilities.
Freeberg had read some of the things Hayden had written and invited him to the United States to talk about his work, recalls Hayden, an Ontario native who was born in Windsor and raised in St. Catharines.
Hayden flew to Washington, D.C., where he was picked up and driven to the North Bethesda, Md., estate of Eunice Shriver – John F. Kennedy’s sister and trustee of the Kennedy foundation – and her husband, Sargent Shriver. Since 1962, the Shrivers had been hosting summer camps for children and teens with intellectual disabilities.
Hayden says Shriver’s first question for him was: Could his idea for the national centennial Games work in the United States?
“I said yes it can, but not with me – I’m committed to my work with the graduate students at Western University,” says Hayden.
But the Shrivers eventually convinced him to take a 1½-year leave of absence from Western and move his wife and children to Washington. Hayden spent much of this time presenting his research at various clinics and schools in the United States, as part of a larger effort by the foundation to raise support for a national Games.
Soon after his return to Western, Hayden got another call from Freeberg.
“He tells me he’s in the office of a woman who works for the park district in Chicago and she’s responsible for the summer playground programs,” says Hayden. “She’s thinking of running a track meet for kids with intellectual disabilities, and [asked] do I think it has the potential to be national in scope?’
“I said, ‘Yes it just might, but you’ll need a grant to make it national – I can help you put together the grant proposal and sell it to the Shrivers.’”
On July 20, 1968 – three years after Hayden started working with the Shrivers – the Kennedy foundation and the Chicago Park District hosted the first International Special Olympics Summer Games. About 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada competed in more than 200 events that included floor hockey, swimming and the 50-yard dash.
Hayden served as executive director of the Games – a position he held until 1972 – and as an advisory committee member. When the Special Olympics was incorporated three weeks later, he was one of three people listed as co-incorporators, and among seven named to the organization’s board of directors.
“I did indeed turn Chicago Park’s playground track meet into the Special Olympics,” says Hayden. “I wanted to use the word ‘Olympic’ because of all that implies: competition and achievement, and the transformative power of sport.”
Chicago was just the beginning. Hayden went on to bring the Special Olympics to Canada and other parts of the world. He led the European affairs office for Special Olympics International in Paris.
“By the 1980s I had established an office of international development in Washington and we had more than 50 countries – including China – sending their athletes to the Special Olympics,” says Hayden. “I spent maybe a third of my time in Washington working out of that office, spent another third at McMaster, and the other third I spent travelling the world recruiting countries to join the movement.”
Today, at 88 years old, Hayden looks back at more than five decades of building, promoting and supporting the Special Olympics. His pivotal role in the Games, combined with his pioneering research and advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has earned him a long string of accolades.
These include the Order of Ontario, Order of Canada, and the Queen Elizabeth II golden and diamond jubilee medals. Half a dozen universities have granted him honorary degrees.
“But the biggest reward is when we go to the Games or a fundraising event, and a parent or athlete comes up to us to tell us what this program has meant to them and to their family,” says Hayden. “That makes everything – all the years of hard work – worthwhile.”