By David Gold

David Gold_12-03-12The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, not to be confused with the Paralympic Games, as it so often is. The difference between the two is subtle, but crucial nonetheless. Indeed, the Special Olympics is for individuals with intellectual disabilities, whereas the Paralympics is generally for athletes with any disability, including physical, and only at an elite level.

Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, insists, however, that he is not concerned about people who get his organisation's work confused with the Paralympics.

"I think that what we share in common is that we are trying to use the power of sport to change the way the world sees people who have differences," he told insideworldparasport. "As long as we are doing it and they are I'm not going to kill myself over our logos getting mixed up or people coming up to me after the Paralympics and saying 'good job'. We're confused everywhere and we are collaborative and friendly and have very good relationships with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)."

And, as though planned, just as we are talking who else should show up but Xavier Gonzalez, chief executive of the IPC, whom Shriver takes a moment to greet.

"I love the fact people cheer for the Paralympics, it is incredibly inspiring – they are not the enemy," he says. "It would be nice if we could be clearer about the differences but it's not an obsession."

Shriver is part of one of the most important families in American history, the Kennedys. His uncle John F Kennedy (JFK) was the President of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963, and his brother Bobby subsequently ran for the Presidency but met the same fate while campaigning in 1968.

Eunice Shriver_2005_winter_games_29-05-12
Shriver's mother was Eunice Kennedy Shriver (pictured above, left) – founder of the Special Olympics, and the sister of John, Bobby and former Massachusetts Senator Ted – who died in 2009. And Shriver sounded particularly like JFK, famed for his profound quotes, when he insisted: "The things that we have in common are more important than the things we do differently."

The 52-year-old was speaking at the SportAccord Convention in Québec City, where the Special Olympics was talking to sports federations about becoming involved in their movement. Currently, some four million people participate in the Special Olympics, but Shriver is determined that they continue their growth. Key to that, he said, was the help and support of sports federations.

"We hope to have conversations with these folks about our model," he said. "I would say we are beginning. Last year we had 50,000 Special Olympics games and competitions...we want to double that number.

"In order to do that we are going to need the international and national federations and sport clubs to join us in a much more aggressive way. We're going to need coaching expertise, their facilities, volunteers and financial resources – not for us but to invest in athletes. We are here to issue a challenge to these federations to join with us in providing a model of sport at the community level that vastly increases the fitness training."

Special Olympics_29-05-12
As well as quadrupling participation numbers since the turn of the millennium, the Special Olympics is hoping to increase the number of its competitions significantly.

"The number of competitive opportunities those athletes had are a measure of our success – 50,000 games are an important indicator," says Shriver. "That is a big number but we need to increase it significantly." Shriver is also keen to stress the importance of going the extra mile for those with intellectual disabilities, and not simply "pat them on the head and say job well done".

"Our population is malnourished in the developing world so despite our best efforts our population does not get enough access to high quality coaching, nutrition and lifelong fitness practises. There is a gap and I think that is attributable to people not thinking those things are important.

"To be honest I think they do not see a person with Down syndrome and think that person deserves to be healthy, fit, active and engaged in sport. They are happy to pat them on the head and say job well done after a day or two on the field. We are trying to challenge ourselves but also these people."

Although the Special Olympics is in more than 170 countries, it is arguably largest in the United States, where it was conceived in 1968, 20 years after the Paralympics began. The next Special Olympics will be the World Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2013, the South Korean city which is hosting the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2018. Los Angeles is hosting the next Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2015.

Special Olympics_awarded_to_Los_Angeles_26-09-11
Despite the similarities, Shriver (pictured above, second right) explains the Special Olympics are fundamentally different from the Paralympics.

"Our model is we bring the Olympic spirit and not the model," he said. "The Paralympics does use the Olympic model. That may be a bit obvious but I think too frequently people in the sports world have marginalised our model of sport, thinking that because we do not have a pyramid hierarchy and that our games are not for elite athletes that somehow we are not real.

"There is a sense in which the excellence of human achievement by people with a disability is very central to the Paralympic model. For us excellence is a personal achievement much more than a nominative one. Games are intended to be exhibitions as individual achievement against great odds not of an elite achievement against others."

In almost everything he says, Shriver's heritage as part of the extended Kennedy clan comes through – and that can only be a good thing for the future of the Special Olympics.

David Gold is a reporter for insideworldparasport