In Conversation with Dr. Frank Hayden

Dr. Frank Hayden created the Special Olympics while working in the United States. He also played an instrumental role in founding the Special Olympics in Canada. On 22 June 2016, Dr. Hayden spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Dr. Frank Hayden created the Special Olympics while working in the United States. He also played an instrumental role in founding the Special Olympics in Canada. On 22 June 2016, Dr. Hayden spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Long jumper, Special Olympics World Games 2015
Mikasja Kwasie of Suriname took home gold in the long jump at the Special Olympics World Games in L.A. in 2015. Photo taken on: July 31st, 2015

Dr. Frank Hayden, born in Windsor and raised in St. Catharines, Ontario, created the Special Olympics while working in the United States. He also played an instrumental role in founding the Special Olympics in Canada. In his early studies at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, Dr. Hayden did extensive research on the physical fitness of Canadian children with intellectual disabilities, concluding that people with an intellectual disability could become physically fit, if given the opportunity. His research was ground-breaking; prior to this, many people believed that intellectual disability itself was responsible for poor fitness and physical skills. In 1965, at the request of the Kennedy family, Hayden moved to Washington, D.C., to become director at the Kennedy Foundation and to implement his plan for a national sports program. In 1968, with the help of the Chicago Park District, he designed and directed the first Special Olympic Games in Soldier Field. He also played an important part in the staging of the first Canadian National Special Olympic Games in Toronto, Ontario, in 1969. In 2000, Hayden became an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2016, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. On 22 June 2016, Dr. Hayden spoke to Jeremy Freeborn for The Canadian Encyclopedia.

JF: What prompted your interest in the physical and athletic capabilities of people with intellectual disabilities?

FH: I did my grad work at the University of Illinois and I was absorbed in the world of exercise physiology and psychology. I combined the two. Then when I came to the University of Toronto as a research associate, my boss, Dr. Harry Ebbs, who was the chief of pediatrics at the Sick Kids Hospital, approached me and said he had a chance for a grant that would pay half of my salary. I was asked to do research on the fitness and motor performance of children with intellectual disabilities. I would get back to him. I went to the library for two days at the University of Illinois and discovered that there was really nothing published on this. I figured that I would become an instant expert and that I had a blank sheet. That is why I started. The reason I continued was because I loved the children that I found at the schools and the things that we did together.

JF: What was your initial reaction when you were contacted by Eunice Kennedy to be part of the Kennedy Foundation?

FH: It was 1964 and the Kennedy name was even bigger than it is today. I wasn't aware of their foundation or their work with the mentally handicapped. I met her and her husband, Sargent Shriver, at their residence one night. They asked me to send things down that I thought they may like to read. Among the things I sent was a proposal for a Canadian national program for two years, culminating in 1967, Canada's 100th birthday, with the National Centennial Games at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The one thing Sargent asked was if I could do this in the United States. I said somebody can, but that I already had a job because I was working at the University of Western Ontario by then. They kept calling me. I told them I wasn't coming. But when you keep on saying no to those folks it means they must have you. I went to Washington for four months and stayed for seven and a half years. I had the support of not just the Foundation, but people like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Ethel and Teddy Kennedy as well. Their involvement brought us a lot of attention and the movement grew.

JF: What do you remember most about your experience with the Special Olympics movement?

FH: The joy of success. It wasn’t that hard to sell, to be honest with you. There were people who disagreed. I remember lecturing to the medical faculty at the University of Paris, France, with my basic grasp of French explaining what I was trying to do and how I thought the children and adults would benefit. If the French don't agree with you, they tell you. Several said that sport may bring on seizures and it will not be good for kids…. They were really worried and didn't accept my proposal. Suddenly there was a voice from the back of the room. This person had come in after I had started. It was the Dean who thought there would be fewer seizures, not more. They would argue with me but not with him. There were people like that who accepted my work from the very beginning. Some people disagreed with my proposal or wouldn't go along with it. What I realized when I went to the United States, was that I needed to show them what it was that we were talking about. We had the first Special Olympic Games in Soldier Field in 1968. People saw what it was that we were talking about. Then we could grow from there. Within two years I had state organizations and annual state games in all 50 states and all 50 states sent teams to the second Special Olympic Games in Chicago in 1970.

JF: How gratifying has it been to play such an instrumental role in the globalization of the Special Olympics movement?

FH: I always felt that the Special Olympics could grow worldwide. The timing was everything. Just like it was for the first Special Olympic Games in 1968, and just like it was for the early stages in Canada. It just happened through a series of circumstances. I took a three-and-a-half-year sabbatical from McMaster University [where he was the director of the School of Physical Education and Athletics]. I established an office in Washington for Special Olympics International and travelled the world as the Billy Graham [evangelist] of the Special Olympics. From my travels, I concluded that we are so much alike. We are much more alike than different. People love sport. To get these children involved in sport, it means a lot. Sport means a lot wherever you go.

JF: Turning to the Special Olympics in this country, what do you think is the most important development of the movement in Canada?

FH: Harry “Red” Foster was the leader of the Special Olympics movement in Canada. He came to the 1968 Special Olympics in Chicago. I negotiated for months to get Canadian representation at the first Games and we got a floor hockey team. It was out of Toronto from the Beverley School I did research at. At the Games, Red approached me and said, “Frank, we should have this in Canada.” I didn't say, “Red, I have been trying for two and a half years.” I said, “Red, I think you're right.” [The following year, Canada hosted its first National Special Olympic Games in Toronto.]

Red would call me Sunday nights and ask for advice. I told him that you need to build an organization. You can't just have Games. The Special Olympics movement needs to be strong at the community level and you need a national organization. Red for years resisted doing that and did not want the responsibility. Eventually, there was a lot of pressure from the western provinces to create a national organization. From there, Special Olympics Canada was created and it is one of the best organizations in the world. When Canadian Special Olympians are sent to World Games, all Canadians should be very proud. They look good. They perform well and get praise from the rest of the world for their sportsmanship. We really are a world leader.

JF: Red Foster was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1984. What can you tell us about the impact Red had on the development of Special Olympics in Canada?

FH: Red was an athlete himself. He played football and was a speedboat racer. He was a pioneer in sports broadcasting and then went into the world of advertising and Foster Advertising was very popular. He had a great interest in the mentally handicapped because he had a brother with an intellectual disability. Red saw what his mother encountered and saw what she had to do. He had great sympathy and helped develop the Canadian Association for Retarded Children [now the Canadian Association for Community Living] in 1958 and the Ontario association as well. Then when he saw what I was doing with the Special Olympics, because of his experience with sport and advertising, it sold him.

Red highly respected Rose Kennedy because he related her to his mother. Rose was the mother of Rosemary Kennedy, who had an intellectual disability. Prior to the 1969 Special Olympic Games in Toronto, Red asked me, “Do you think she would come, Frank?” I said, “I can try.” I called her up and to my surprise she said, "Fine, Frank. Yes, I will go." She came to Toronto for those first Games. We were on the front pages of the four Toronto newspapers for the next four days. Red loved that aspect of it. Mrs. Kennedy helped me in a great variety of ways with the Special Olympics.

JF: I’d like to discuss the Canadian government support of Special Olympics. How important is it for you that Sport Canada recognizes Special Olympics as the main provider of sports services for people with an intellectual disability?

FH: They see Special Olympics Canada as part of the sport system. We are part of the Canadian sports family. There are world famous global champions who help us and work with us, and recognize Special Olympics as sport. They recognize what we do is sport. We have a champions network that was started by Mark Tewksbury. Pinball Clemons just attended the Ontario Special Olympics Spring Games in Guelph. There is no other agency in Canada that provides sport for the mentally handicapped and there doesn't have to be. It is broad enough and we have a terrific number of volunteers. The most important thing to remember is that the most important level of Special Olympics is at the community level, not the World Games. The most important part of the Special Olympics happens in local pools, tracks and gymnasiums in Canada every day.

The Guelph Special Olympics
Players scrambling for the ball, during basketball match between Guelph and Kingston, in the Spring Special Olympics held May 28, 2016, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Photo taken on: May 28th, 2016

JF: In recent years, Canadian Olympic gold medalists Catriona Le May Doan, Mark Tewksbury and Jamie Salé have been involved with Special Olympics. Can you tell me about the relationship between these athletes and Special Olympians?

FH: Whenever I see the interaction between generic athletes and Special Olympians, I sit back and smile. They are getting as much out of it as the Special Olympians. They enjoy the whole thing.

JF: On a personal level, how meaningful is it for you to be inducted in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame?

FH: Well, it is terrific. By being inducted, the entire Special Olympics movement is also being inducted. I bring all Special Olympians over the last 55 years in with me. Now that I have seen the Hall of Fame, it is really special to be in here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.