Special Game Plan

Frank Hayden, center, celebrates the launch of “Make No Small Plans,” a book commemorating the 40th anniversary of Special Olympics Canada. Some of the organization’s athletes joined him at the event, held last summer at Beverley Junior Public School in Toronto, site of the first such competition in Canada in 1969. Photo courtesy of Special Olympics Canada

Nothing that you will read here disputes the fact that the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics, a worldwide organization that provides sports training and competition for people who have cognitive disabilities. But this story is a reminder that success has many origins.

In this case, you’d be on firm ground tracing the roots of Special Olympics to the University of Illinois in 1960 and a spirited doctoral student named Frank Hayden, MS ’58 AHS, PHD ’62 AHS.

You usually remember meeting people like Hayden. They possess those vivid traits that make any idea seem possible: resourcefulness, energy, optimism, charisma.

“You know,” a woman once told him in Paris, with her husband by her side, “we don’t have a man like you in all of France.”

But that’s at the other end of this story. It starts with Hayden as a young graduate student under the tutelage of renowned professor T.K. Cureton, founder of the U of I’s kinesiology program. Cureton taught Hayden fitness demonstration techniques that Hayden would later employ everywhere from China to the Middle East as he worked to spread Special Olympics.

In 1960, Hayden was near the end of his studies at Illinois and had accepted a research position back home in Canada (he was interested in the relationship between exercise and mood). One day the man for whom Hayden was set to work phoned him – a group of Rotary clubs in Toronto was offering a research grant to study fitness in children with cognitive disabilities, and the caller wondered if Hayden was interested.

“I said, ‘I’ll call you back in two days,’” Hayden recalls. “I went to the library there at Illinois, and I looked to see what had been done on it. At that point there really wasn’t much at all. So I said [to myself], ‘Well, Frank, you’ll be an instant expert. You’ve got a blank page.’”

‘There was a Need Out There’
Hayden’s early research took place in Toronto at what is now called Beverley Junior Public School, a setting for children who had cognitive disabilities (that is, people who have greater difficulty with various types of mental tasks compared to people without disabilities). Hayden oversaw sit-ups, running, jumping and other activities to test the kids’ fitness levels. He determined that these children were about half as physically fit as those without such disabilities. Then came the surprise: It didn’t have to be that way.

“Everyone just assumed,” Hayden says, that because of the children’s cognitive condition, “of course they’re weak, and they’re slow, and they’re unskilled, and they stumble when they walk. But then our research showed … it wasn’t an automatic thing that came with mental handicap.”

Hayden determined that the fitness gap between kids with cognitive disabilities and the rest could be closed quickly. As one account put it, Hayden’s exercise programs – which focused on areas such as strength and cardiovascular conditioning – turned even lethargic kids into “balls of energy.”

In 1964 Hayden wrote “Physical Fitness for the Mentally Retarded” (the word “retarded” is now considered by many to be offensive but not so back then). He asked the Rotary clubs that had originally funded his research for $1,000 to print 1,000 copies of the book. He planned to give away 500 and distribute the rest for $2 apiece so the clubs could get their money back. In the end, more than 50,000 copies were sold.

“[The sales] just showed me that there was a market not just for the book but a market for teachers and parents and physical educators that were looking for help in order to provide this kind of activity,” Hayden says. “As I said from the beginning, from the original idea of why I got involved, there was a need out there and a blank page.”

The Kennedy Connection
To many, this was the beginning of “Dr. Frank” – as they affectionately call him in Canada – who was instrumental in the formation of Special Olympics, for soon after the book was released, a copy made its way south of the border (indeed most of the sales were in the United States) and landed in the hands of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. One thing was about to lead to another.

Here’s where Special Olympics history kind of depends on where you are. American descriptions of Shriver portray her as the movement’s original, ferocious ball carrier. Canadians revere her as such, too, but north of the border you’ll also hear Hayden’s name in the same breath – if not before it.

“We always look at Frank as being the creator and Mrs. Shriver as being the founder,” says Glenn MacDonell, president and CEO of Special Olympics Ontario, Canada’s largest chapter, “because it was a great physical education idea that Frank had, and then it was transported to Washington.”

Shriver and the Kennedy Foundation threw weight behind his ideas and attracted big names to the cause. And while Hayden’s research brought him to the attention of Shriver and her husband, Sargent, they were particularly interested in another idea he had – namely, a proposal for a “National Mental Retardation Games.” The idea had failed to take hold in Canada, but when Hayden first met the Shrivers in 1965, the first question out of Sargent’s mouth was whether Hayden could organize something similar in the United States.

“Here I’d been pushing and working hard to get it off the ground in Canada,” Hayden recalls, laughing at the irony, “[and with him] it was kind of like, ‘Hi, Dr. Hayden, how are ya. Can you do this in the United States?’”

Hayden was at first reluctant, however. He was happy in Canada. “Someone can do it but not me,” he told them.

But the Shrivers liked him. They didn’t take no for an answer, and finally, a few months after that first meeting, Hayden gathered his wife, Marion, and their four children and moved to Washington, D.C., where he was hired as the Kennedy Foundation’s fitness director.

Welcome to the Windy City
By the time Hayden started the new job, however, the Shrivers’ interest in a national games had temporarily waned. Although Hayden’s energies were directed elsewhere, he continued to make presentations on the topic, hoping to revive the idea.

Finally the break came. The Chicago Park District was seeking funding for a citywide track meet for people with cognitive disabilities, and someone recalled Hayden’s proposal. Eunice Shriver soon announced a $20,000 grant for a “Chicago Special Olympics,” and Hayden was appointed director. The July 1968 Games at Soldier Field expanded beyond Chicago, however, and included some 900 athletes from 26 states, plus a floor hockey team from the school at which Hayden had worked in Toronto.

Hayden recalls “sweating blood” at that first effort as he ran himself ragged making sure the inaugural Special Olympics Games went smoothly.

“Everybody there except myself thought they were there for just a happy day,” Hayden says. “But in my mind I’m thinking, ‘This has to really go well because if it doesn’t, we’ll never do what we’re talking about, about developing … a national organization, getting people to run games like this all over the country, and then maybe way off on the horizon other countries besides the United States and Canada.’”

Besides a few hitches, the event was a success. It was also a statement, as it displayed a belief held closely by Hayden and the Kennedy Foundation that Special Olympics should be about sport, not just recreation. His research had indicated that fitness was a lifestyle, and to change lifestyles, you need motivation.

“Sport has all the motivation to do that,” says Hayden. “All the rewards system, the support system, the progression, social
atmosphere … feeling better about yourself, making friends – [all that] improved their learning ability.

“It’s something for families,” he adds. “One of the most important things Special Olympics does is [it] relates to mothers and fathers and gives them a new view of their sons or daughters.”

After the first Games, Hayden spent 1969 conducting training sessions and organizing regional games across the U.S. and Canada. In 1970, a second U.S.-Canada Special Olympics Games was held in Chicago. The strategy called for the larger events to inspire similar activities on the local level, so that everyone could take part. Involvement was growing rapidly.

“It trickled down,” Hayden says, as the cachet of Special Olympics helped bring more and more people into the program at all levels, not just the final competitions. “The only justification even today for the World Games is for what it does at national levels, and the national level is only good for eventually what it does at the local level.”

Going International
Hayden left the Kennedy Foundation after a few years, but by the 1980s other countries were interested in starting Special Olympics. Upon Eunice Shriver’s request, Hayden became the organization’s director of international development, traveling the world to organize Special Olympics offices and perform demonstrations on how to teach fitness to those with cognitive disabilities.

Special Olympics now provides year-round sports training and athletic competition and related programming for more than 2.5 million children and adults with cognitive disabilities in more than 180 countries.

Today, at 79, Hayden has mostly retired from his work, though he’s still involved with Special Olympics Canada and travels regularly to events. Neil Glasberg, chairman of Special Olympics Canada, says Hayden is always smiling and serves as an “incredibly positive” influence on the organization.

“I watch the interpersonal dynamics between … Special Olympics athletes and Dr. Frank,” Glasberg says, “and they all know who he is. He’s not this behind-the-scenes guy. He absolutely was instrumental in terms of the movement.”

If Hayden’s been overlooked by Americans at large, he has a bevy of recognition from his homeland. A partial list of awards for his work on Special Olympics includes the Canadian Royal Bank Award for his contributions to human welfare and the common good (he gave half of the $250,000 prize to Special Olympics) and being named an officer of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Hayden’s also full of stories, which he’d like to write into a book. One of his more memorable moments occurred while Special Olympics was being introduced in France in the late ’60s.

Hayden was conducting a fitness demonstration for children with cognitive disabilities and their parents in Paris (it was after this demonstration that the aforementioned French wife swooned over him). Because Sargent Shriver was the American ambassador to France at the time, the event took place at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. In the packed ballroom, everyone – including the children – was dressed to the nines, except for Hayden, clad in a sweat suit. Not that he didn’t recognize the importance of the occasion – in fact he worried that America would get a black eye if it didn’t go well – but he had work to do.

When the demonstration started, he approached the first girl in line. “Would you like to play with me?” Hayden asked.

“No,” she replied.

“So I go to the next one, and I say, ‘Would you like to play with me?’ He says, ‘Nope,’” Hayden recalls with a laugh. “I go all the way down the line, and they all say, ‘No.’ So I said, ‘I guess that’s the end of the demonstration.’”

Then Hayden spotted a child with whom he thought he could connect. Hayden grabbed the boy’s hand and said, “Come with me.” He started running with him around the room.

“And then I say [to another one], ‘Hey, would you like to come with me, too?’” Hayden recalls. One by one the children said, “Yes.”

You can imagine the smiles when finally he had them all on their feet, sweating and running and playing, turning the ballroom into a glimpse of what could be.