The Special Olympics Athlete's code is "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." Those words are perhaps the clearest expression of what the Special Olympics movement is about.
The Special Olympics concept was given its initial momentum in the early 1960s by American Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who wished to create opportunities for persons with intellectual disability in the wider world through their participation in organized sport. The first Special Olympic Games, modeled to a large degree on the format of the traditional Summer Olympics, was held in New York in 1968. Since that time, the Special Olympics have become both a winter and summer quadrennial sports festival open to participants worldwide. Other Special Olympics competitions are convened in a wide range of team and individual sports throughout the world on both a local and a regional basis.
It is a measure of the global interest in Special Olympics activities that the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run, first run in the United States in 1981, is now a fundraising event organized in 35 countries around the world.
It is the stated mission of the Special Olympics movement that its participants obtain the advantages of year-round sport training in Olympic-type sports, with an emphasis on fitness, participation, and friendship within a competitive atmosphere. The Special Olympics seeks to be a part of the life of persons with intellectual disabilities in assisting them to be as productive as possible in society at large. It is this point that distinguishes the Special Olympics from both the Paralympics and Olympics movements, where competition at the highest possible level is an overarching objective of the participating athletes. The Paralympics, competitions standard for the participation of persons with intellectual disability, are similar to those established by the Special Olympics; there is no formal overlap between the two organizations.
Special Olympics International (SOI) is the governing body of worldwide Special Olympics programs. SOI is composed of representatives of its various member nations, which in turn are composed of regional and state Special Olympics bodies.
The Special Olympics movement advances its mission through inclusivity. The intellectual disabilities of the Special Olympians render these athletes indistinguishable from 90% of the general population. Special Olympics competition is open to any athlete who is a minimum of eight years of age and who meets certain criteria, including the athlete has been identified by an appropriate professional or agency as a person with a mental disability, or the athlete has been similarly identified as a person with cognitive delay, often referred to as a "slow learner"; a slow learner is usually considered to be a person who is more than two years behind their peers in their educational progress. Another criterion is that the athlete has been determined to possess a significant learning disability or vocational problem. The Special Olympics movement uses adaptive skill areas, aspects of life such as social skills, self-care, and vocational abilities, to assess athlete eligibility.
Certain individuals who might otherwise qualify for admission to all Special Olympics programs are restricted in the extent of their participation for safety reasons. An example is certain athletes with the genetic disease, Down syndrome, which often imposes a companion condition, atlantoaxial instability, which renders the cervical vertebrae located immediately below the skull (vertebrae C-1) vulnerable to injury with physical contact.
The Special Olympics include a broad range of sports that are inspired by the Olympics format, with appropriate modification. The Winter Special Olympics has two events, snowshoeing and floor hockey, added to suit the requirements and the skill set of the athletes. The Special Olympics variety of floor hockey is also modified for broader participation, a six-player per side indoor game played with a pole and a felt disc with the center removed; the disc is advanced through its propulsion through the insertion of the pole into the disc center.
One Special Olympics sport that does not require significant modification form the standard Olympic format is power lifting. Special Olympic athletes lift weights in squat, bench press, and dead lift competitions.
Special Olympics equestrian competition preserves the Olympic format in that male and female athletes compete in the same events. Unified Sports is a feature unique to the Special Olympics equestrian competition. Unified Sports pairs a Special Olympics athlete with an athlete who is not intellectually disabled, and these athletes compete on their mounts as a team in various relay and drills events.
Another feature of Special Olympics team events are the individual skills competitions. Examples are basketball dribbling and passing events, and floor hockey shooting contests. In most skills competitions, all of the members of the team are able to participate regardless of ability. In regional or state Special Olympics competitions, the skills competitions are used to seed teams into their appropriate level of play. The team sports such as basketball or floor hockey will generally provide for up to four competitive divisions. Basketball, a very popular Special Olympics sport, uses the same rules of play as would a regular competition at its highest ability level, with modifications to accommodate the level of intellectual disability in the remaining divisions. Such aspects of the Special Olympics are another component of the inclusivity that is desired in all aspects of the competition.