Special Olympics' Dr. Frank Hayden bettered lives of millions

Every year when the latest class of icons is inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, we pause to reflect on the remarkable feats each has accomplished on the fields of play.As a people, we have this undeniable reverence for the remarkable athletes, both professional and amateur, that our society has produced.

Often the builders, while equally acknowledged, remain more unknown to the majority of those who love sport because their contributions have been fashioned away from the spotlight of centre ice or the 50-yard line.

This year, there is one builder going into the Hall of Fame, and his name is Dr. Frank Hayden. 

He is a pioneer of the Special Olympics movement. His incredible endeavours have captured the essence of sport and are at long last being recognized by the country’s shrine to athletic pursuit.

6 fantastic athletes

In Hayden’s class are six fantastic athletes.

There is Michael “Pinball” Clemons, the effervescent face of the Canadian Football League. Clemons is a four-time Grey Cup champion who holds the record for all-purpose yards in the CFL and, more importantly, is the ambassador for football’s goodwill in this country.

Colleen Jones of Halifax is one of the greatest female curlers in history, a six-time Canadian champion, twice a world champion, and a television commentator who helped her sport gain popularity.

There is Bryan Trottier, the hockey superstar who won six Stanley Cup championships as a player and one more as an assistant coach. 

Annie Perreault, twice an Olympic champion and role model in short-track speed skating. 

Paralympic swimmer Stephanie Dixon goes into the Hall of Fame boasting an incredible 19 medals won at three different Games, including seven trips to the top of the podium.

Meanwhile, Sue Holloway was the first Canadian to compete in both the Winter and Summer Olympics in the same year, which she did as a cross-country skier in Innsbruck in 1976 and then as a kayaker that summer in Montreal. Holloway went on to paddle her way to two Olympic medals in Los Angeles in 1984.

But Dr. Frank Hayden is different. 

Envisioned sport for everyone

He envisioned sport as a possibility for everyone, including those countless children with intellectual disabilities.

Hayden, while a member of the faculty at Western University in London, Ont., conducted research on the role that physical activity could have in the lives of disabled children. In the 1960s he conceived of and built fitness programs for intellectually disabled children and attracted the attention of the Kennedy Foundation and its patron, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

The result was the staging of the first Special Olympics in 1968 in Chicago. It was an attitudinal breakthrough which spawned a belief that sport must be accessible for all people regardless of physical or intellectual circumstance.

“Frank had a vision that people with intellectual disabilities could have community through sport,” said Mark Tewksbury, an Olympic gold medalist who served as honourary captain for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in 2015. 

“His vision is truly an example of sport transcending the playing field and making a difference in people’s lives. The raw spirit of sport is reflected in these athletes.”

Hayden served as executive director of the Special Olympics from 1968-72 and founded the European arm of Special Olympics International. He was also a consultant to Canadian Special Olympics throughout the 1990’s.

“His compassionate work in the 1960s was game changing for every person with an intellectual disability because it pioneered programs that would create a legacy that will last forever,” said Rod Black, a renowned sports commentator with TSN and CTV who has long been a champion of the Special Olympics movement in Canada. 

“He is an ordinary, humble Canadian who has made an extraordinary contribution to society because of something so simple … realizing that everyone, no matter their ability or disability, has a chance to play and to dream.”

Program in 170 countries

Today the Special Olympics program inspired by Hayden supplies training and friendly rivalry for more than three million athletes with intellectual disabilities in over 170 countries worldwide. It is unquestionably one of the most successful sporting achievements in the modern age.

“The movement is all about helping these athletes lead a healthier life through sport,” said Olympic gold-medalist Catriona Le May Doan, who acted as honourary coach at the 2013 Special Olympics World Games in South Korea in 2013.

“I met countless European team leads who told stories of Frank spending days on trains with no money for food. He tried to get to see places to help create programs for Special Olympians in remote places. And beyond that I’ll never forget a cross-country skier I met at the last Games in Newfoundland and Labrador who told me that he wanted to thank Dr. Hayden for his research because now he was able to fit in and to finally feel normal.”

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame will now feature more than 600 members with the inclusion of the class of 2016. Myriad sports are represented as well as both genders and people from many races and faiths.

But Frank Hayden’s entry to the Hall of Fame undeniably gives the institution yet another layer.

As a builder and a visionary he has shown the world that sport is essential to all of us regardless of our circumstance. 

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