Dr Timothy Shriver, Chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics
WHEN young athletes with intellectual disabilities rubbed shoulders with Shanghai basketball icon Yao Ming at a recent fundraising event in the city, it was a proud moment for Dr Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.
Boston-born Shriver, who heads the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, was delighted to see the young Special Olympians meeting and dining with the former NBA Houston Rockets star, plus speed skating legend Yang Yang.
The event, which also featured well-known media figure Yang Lan, raised 1,944,000 yuan (US$311,753) for the Shanghai Special Care Foundation and helped promote the forthcoming Special Olympics World Winter Games.
During the trip, Shriver met some of the new leaders of China and exchanged ideas and visions for the development of the Special Olympics in China. He shared these with Shanghai Daily.
The Special Olympics holds training and competitions all year round, involving more than 4 million athletes in 170 countries in some 53,000 events annually at local, national and regional levels.
Every two years, the organization holds the Special Olympics World Games, and this month the 2013 winter games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The event is expected to attract almost 3,300 athletes and coaches from 112 countries.
The Special Olympics is a separate organization to the International Paralympic Committee, which runs Paralympic Games for athletes with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities immediately after the Olympic Games.
To Shriver, every special child has their own gifts and the potential to become a star like anyone else. As head of the Special Olympics, he has been fighting discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities for decades.
"Thousands of years of human history seem to have the same pattern, which is to exclude people with intellectual disabilities. I've studied this in the ancient Greeks and in Biblical times in the Middle East," explained Shriver.
"In almost every culture, there's an assumption that if a child has an intellectual disability, for example Down's syndrome or autism, then somehow they're hopeless. That's the biggest barrier; because they are not."
Having started his career as a high school teacher and holding a PhD in education, Shriver knows how painful such negative attitudes are for the families of the children.
"If I were to say I have a child with intellectual disabilities, people would say, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' It's very painful for parents to hear that," Shriver said.
"Imagine someone who suddenly saw you and said, 'I'm sorry' about who you are. You haven't done anything. You just happen to look different. This attitude is very deep and will take us decades to fight.
"We're fighting it and every day we do a little better but it's very deep prejudice. This is a big problem in China; this is a big problem everywhere."
Shriver's mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, ran Camp Shriver which evolved into the Special Olympics. His connection to China goes back to his father, Sargent Shriver, who as chairman of the Special Olympics brought the concept to China in the 1980s.
"My father came here for the Special Olympics and there were some big challenges," Shriver recalled. "There was a sense that disability didn't exist. There was a lot of hiding - intellectual disability in particular. My dad met with people and they would say, 'Well, we don't have any of these people'."
"Obviously there are people with disabilities everywhere - hundreds of millions in the world. But at the time, China was going through many changes, moving toward fully opening to the outside world," he said.
In the years since, Shriver has witnessed the development of special care for intellectually disabled children in China, with the establishment of nearly 1,000 special schools.