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The Story Behind the Special Olympics is Getting the Big Screen Treatment

Ken Kwapis’ ‘Special’ will shine a light on the underdog who helped create the Games.
By  · Published on November 1st, 2017

Ken Kwapis’ ‘Special’ will shine a light on the underdog who helped create the Games.

The Special Olympics have been empowering and championing intellectually disabled athletes for nearly half a century, thanks to PE instructor Anne Burke, who helped co-create the Games in the ‘60s. Now, as Deadline is reporting, the inspirational story behind Burke’s part in the establishment of the Special Olympic Games (not to be confused with the Paralympic Games) will take center stage in Special, a feature film from ShivHans Pictures (Captain Fantastic, Trumbo) and In Cahoots (Happyish). In Cahoots is co-owned by director Ken Kwapis, who is also attached to helm the project. Matthew Scott Weiner, a first-time screenwriter, is set to pen the script for the as-yet-uncast movie.

The film will tell the story of how Burke’s early efforts to make sport accessible to intellectually disabled people in Chicago led to the creation of a worldwide competition that would go on to train and champion millions of athletes who might otherwise have been overlooked.

In 1965, at the young age of 21, college dropout Burke was teaching PE in the Chicago area when she attended a seminar given by Dr William Freeberg, a PE professor who believed sport was integral to improving the lives and prospects of intellectually disabled people. Inspired by Dr Freeberg’s teachings, Burke began to offer PE classes for intellectually disabled people at Chicago’s West Pullman Park in her spare time.

In her own words, the ’60s were “a time when the [intellectually disabled] were either in a state institution or in the closet”. Prior to her program, “parents wouldn’t bring them to the parks, because [non-disabled] kids would make fun of them”. However, Burke’s tactic of involving non-disabled children as “junior counselors” in her classes began to change that. Her classes not only educated her students in the athletic sense; they also helped to reduce bullying by integrating disabled and non-disabled children. After receiving a grant for $10,000 from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation (which was run by his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver) in 1965, Burke expanded the program across nine more Chicago parks.

Two years after she began her classes, Burke’s set her sights even higher. Bolstered by the phenomenal success of her program, both in terms of her students’ education and the social integration it encouraged, Burke wanted to open the country’s eyes to the remarkable abilities of her students, many of whom were still treated with disdain by broader society at the time. In 1967, she set about organizing an Olympics-style competition for her students. Early the next year, she traveled to Washington, DC and won the support of Eunice Shriver, bagging the competition a $25,000 grant.

But Shriver’s co-signing, and her foundation’s sizeable check did not necessarily convince everyone. Old prejudices were still at work. As Burke told the Orange County Register in a 2015 interview, her efforts met resistance from several corners. Chicago city officials ignored requests to help Burke supply competitors with everyday necessities like food, while the then-head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Chicagoan Avery Brundage, threatened legal action if Burke affiliated her competition with the Olympics. (Later that year, Nazi-sympathiser Brundage also ordered the medal-stripping of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the US athletes who performed the famous Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics.)

Having friends in high places is always useful, and for Burke, the backing of then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was invaluable. Shriver was busy taking part in her brother Robert’s presidential campaign, so it was down to Daley to pull some strings. Burke’s obstacles miraculously disappeared. That summer, a thousand athletes from the US and Canada competed in over 200 events – including swimming, running and jumping – in the world’s first ever Special Olympics.

After the success of the 1968 Games, Shriver began to take over the reigns, and Burke slowly found her own involvement diminished. Not that that put her off. Now a Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Burke has continued to attend Special Olympics World Games and lobby for the better care of participants over the years: in 2015, she advocated for a re-organization of Games funds so that former competitors who needed it could receive long-term residential care post-competition.

Burke’s legacy has not always received due recognition. It took decades for her name to appear on official Special Olympics documents. Personal snubs from Shriver deepened the sense that Burke was intentionally being erased from the Games’ history. Special, the producers of which have acquired Burke’s life rights, will help to right these slights by centering her crucial contribution to the founding of the Special Olympics.

Helping to shine a light on Burke’s story will be Matthew Scott Weiner, an animator-turned-screenwriter, who is set to pen Special’s script. This will mark Weiner’s first official screenwriting job, so we can’t speculate too much from his attachment, but an unproduced script of his (titled Castle Drive) did win a coveted position on 2015’s Black List, so we know he can write. It will certainly help that the story behind the Special Olympics brings with it all the ready-made heroes and bad guys Weiner could want (Avery Brundage being a villain that requires no rewriting).

Ken Kwapis, the film’s Emmy-nominated director, has been a TV mainstay since the ‘80s when he made his debut on an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories (which is, incidentally, up for a reboot). TV aside, Kwapis stands in good stead on this project with the twelve features he has under his belt, which include based-on-a-true-story crowd-pleasers A Walk in the Woods and Big Miracle. Special’s underdog tale fits the same feel-good mold perfectly.

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Farah Cheded is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects. Outside of FSR, she can be found having epiphanies about Martin Scorsese movies here and reviewing Columbo episodes here.