Message from Mary Davis

Special Olympics CEO Mary Davis congratulates Special Olympics Australia on our 40-year anniversary and speaks about the important role of volunteers in athlete development.

First mention of Special Olympics coming to Australia. “3 States back plan for retarded olympics”. The Age 24 June 1975

In the beginning

On 24 June 1975, The Age announced that 3 States back plan for ‘retarded Olympics’! As shocking as the headline is today, this was standard language in the days when most people with an intellectual disability were shut in institutions. The article is believed to be our first media impression. The following year Special Olympics activities began popping up in local communities in Melbourne Inner East (VIC), Kempsey (NSW), Gold Coast (QLD) and Launceston (TAS). Click here to see how the global Special Olympics movement is campaigning to end the R-word. Click here to see more about our beginnings.

This medal was given to veteran volunteer Dr John Day from Queensland to thank him for his commitment to Special Olympics in Australia.

1976 | Volunteers Take a Leap

On 29 February 1976 – a leap day – Dr John Day was presented with this medal from Special Olympics. He says, "I was presented with this medal in honour of members of the Gold Coast community who started Special Olympics in Australia." It is the earliest piece of evidence that we have in our treasure box to show that Special Olympics was underway in Australia. Click here if you have something to share about this piece of history.

Special Olympics Australia Hall of Fames inductee (2007) Robyn Cook OAM assists an athlete at Fun and Fitness Day at Kew Cottages in 1977.

1977 | Competition Gets Underway

On 1 April 1977, Special Olympics Inner East held their first Fun and Fitness Day at Kew Cottages. At the event 900 people with an intellectual disability from 10 institutions took part in aquatics, athletics, gymnastics and ball games. It was the beginning of an annual competition in the region. This photograph shows Robyn Cook OAM helping an athlete over the vaulting box. Robyn was recognised for her dedication to Special Olympics Australia when she was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2007. Click here if you would like to add to this story.

Special Olympics Australia athlete Terese Gage (NSW) at the National Games in Perth in 1994 where she won gold, silver and bronze in the pool.

1978 | Terese Begins Her Journey

When Terese was born in 1978 her parents were told not to expect much. So when she was young they sought out activities they thought she could enjoy. One of those was swimming, but it wasn’t until she joined Special Olympics Australia at the age of 15 that she found a place where she was accepted and felt comfortable. Weekly training then became a passion. At the National Games in 2002 she won four gold medals, all in personal best times and has since competed at five National Games. How wrong those doctors were 40 years ago. Photo: National Games 1994, Perth. Click here to tell your story.

Program cover for the Mini Olympics for Special Schools held in Launceston, Tasmania in 1979.

1979 | Mini Olympics

In 1979, sporting activities for people with an intellectual disability started to gain traction with the first Mini Olympics held in Launceston (TAS). The event was supported by Special Olympics Victoria and the Kennedy Foundation. An unknown number of athletes competed in aquatics, athletics, basketball, darts, eight ball, equestrian, gymnastics, quoits and trampolining. The event included an Opening and Closing Ceremony, and a Civic Reception. For 50 cents, spectators received a program (pictured left) which gave admission to all venues. Click here to tell us more about this event?

Message from Tim Shriver

Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver congratulates Special Olympics Australia on our 40-year anniversary and thanks the athletes, volunteers, coaches and supporters who have been part of our amazing history.

1980 | Blast From The Past

Check out this blast from the past sharing the joy of Special Olympics athletes with music provided by legendary American singer/songwriter Kenny Rogers. If you have any memories from 1980 that you want to share please get in touch at

Having fun in the Hunter Valley at the launch of the Hunter Valley Club.

1981 | A Turning Point

1981 was recognised as International Year of Disabled Persons by the United Nations. It is considered to be a turning point for disability rights as it began to be seen as a public issue rather than a private problem. Volunteers in the Hunter region of NSW took advantage of this spotlight by launching the Special Olympics Hunter Valley club with a Family Fun Day on 26 April. Legendary volunteer, Leon Burwell was one of the founders of this now thriving club and became widely known as Mr Special Olympics. Sadly, Leon passed away in March 2016. To learn more about Leon click here.

Cassy Geffke in the early days of her gymnastics career.

1982 | Spotlight on Cassy

Cassy Geffke is a veteran gymnast with a successful 26-year career. Cassy has competed at four Special Olympics World Summer Games (1999, 2007, 2011, 2015) where she has finished first overall on one occasion and second overall three times. Her mum Diane says, "When Cassy was born with Down syndrome we were told she would achieve very little, so we are so proud she has gone above and beyond what anyone had hoped for.” And Cassy is not considering retiring from gymnastics anytime soon. She says "I want to keep going as long as I can." Click here to see Cassy now.

Team Australia 1983.

1983 | The First Team Australia

In 1983, a team of eight athletes represented Australia in aquatics and athletics at the International Special Olympics Summer Games in Baton Rouge, USA. At the Games, 4,300 athletes from 50 countries competed across 13 sports. This was the first time Special Olympics Australia had been represented at international level and they won 17 medals. On the team’s return, swim coach Jan Sharp wrote, “It can only be described as an outstanding success. I saw sportsmanship like I’d never known. There is no doubt in my mind that we are on the right track and that our special people should have an opportunity to represent their country the same as anyone else.” Click here to see more.

Dr Frank Hayden with Special Olympics athletes

1984 | Strengthening The Program

Dr Frank Hayden, International Director of Development at Special Olympics Inc visited Australia in March to meet with committees, volunteers, government representatives, sports educators and members of the community in NSW and Victoria to further interest in Special Olympics in Australia. In his report he says, “There is more Special Olympics organisation, awareness and activity in Australia than we had believed. Some very good things are taking place and some very good people are involved.” While he was in town he also participated at the Ovens & Murray Regional Games.

The Australian team as shown in the official program

1985 | Across The Tasman

In March 1985, 37 athletes and 21 volunteer officials, all from Tasmania travelled to Wellington, New Zealand to compete at the inaugural Special Olympics New Zealand National Games. The Games were attended by over 600 competitors. Team Australia competed in aquatics, athletics and tenpin bowling and returned home with 60 medals. In the official program for the Games, Sir Edmund Hillary KBE, New Zealand explorer and one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century according to Time magazine, wrote: “My personal congratulations to all competitors and their managers for making the Games possible. Good luck to all.”

Mark Kennedy Shriver at the first Special Olympics Australia National Games, shown third from left

1986 | Inaugural National Games

The first Special Olympics Australia National Games were held in Launceston, Tasmania. From 21-22 November, 200 athletes from Australia and New Zealand competed in aquatics, athletics, football and gymnastics. The Games were attended by Mark Kennedy Shriver, representing his mother and founder of the global Special Olympics movement, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. In a letter of thanks to Games organisers, she wrote, “We were fortunate indeed that Tasmania was the site for the first National Special Olympics Games of Australia. Congratulations on your brilliant success. I was absolutely delighted to learn that the Australian delegation will attend the 1987 International Summer Special Olympics Games next summer. Well done.” Click here to see more.

1987 | On The World Stage

A team of 23 athletes represented Australia in aquatics, athletics and football at the International Summer Special Olympics Games at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, USA where 4,700 athletes from 60 countries competed. It was billed as the largest amateur sports event in 1987. The Games were covered in Sports Illustrated and Time, and reached more than 150 million people worldwide. Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Arnold Schwarzenegger were just some of the stars of the Opening Ceremony. Check out this video featuring American gymnast Mary Lou Retton and actor Dick Sargent from Bewitched.

1988 | Bicentennial Games

In September, the second Special Olympics Australia National Games, known as the Bicentennial Games, were held in Sydney (NSW). 450 athletes from NSW, QLD, WA, TAS and New Zealand competed in aquatics, athletics, basketball, football (soccer) and gymnastics. The event included the inaugural Awards Dinner proudly sponsored by Coca-Cola Australia and hosted by Australian cricket legend Ian Chappell. Special Olympics Inc also signed a Protocol of Agreement with the IOC making us the only organisation to have the right to use the word “Olympics”.

1989 | Beginnings of Winter Sport

The seed for the Special Olympics Australia winter sports program was sown in 1989 when John Skinner (VIC) attended the International Winter Special Olympics Games in California, USA as a delegate and observer. At the Games 1,400 athletes from 18 countries took part in five winter sports disciplines. In summing up his experience John said, “Winter sports are very exciting and I am convinced that Australia should evaluate and plan for the introduction of winter sports. I believe we have the necessary skills, structure and suitable venues to expand and provide greater opportunities for athletes, families and volunteers in a new section of our community.”

1990 | First National Office

The Special Olympics Australia National Games were held in Melbourne (VIC) with 500 athletes from six states competing in aquatics, athletics, football (soccer), gymnastics and softball. Matilda the Wombat, our first Special Olympics Australia mascot, made her debut at the Games and was a very popular character. In Sydney, the first national office of Special Olympics Australia was established with an Executive Director, Peter Riddington and Director of Coaching and Training, Leon Burwell.

1991 | Medals, Disco & a Kangaroo

53 athletes represented Australia in aquatics, athletics, basketball, football (soccer) and gymnastics at the International Special Olympics Summer Games in Minneapolis, USA. The team returned home with 31 gold medals, 16 silver medals and 18 bronze medals, plus 30 place ribbons (4-8). Brian Kirkwood (TAS), the elder statesman of the team at age 35 won his 200 metre track final by thinking he was being chased by a kangaroo! In May, the first State Games were held in WA with a total of 44 athletes who competed in aquatics, athletics and tenpin bowling. There was also a disco!

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