Eunice Kennedy Shriver awards a gold medal to runner Adonis Brown of Baltimore in 1972. (Wally Fong/AP)

In the 1960s, most people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized — a form of segregation that sentenced them to a life with no real home, no work, no education and usually no respect. Certainly no competitive sports. And then Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of President Kennedy, invited 30 or so special-needs kids to her backyard, where they swam, played soccer and shot hoops. “She saw potential where the rest of society did not,” says Katherine Ott, a curator in the medicine and science division at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “It was a marvelous response to segregation.” That backyard gathering evolved into the Special Olympics, a now-global movement celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “Some people think, ‘Look what these athletes can do — isn’t that sweet or nice?’ and they don’t really take their athleticism seriously,” Ott says. “But these are full-on athletes who train vigorously.” The exhibit “Special Olympics at 50,” which opened Tuesday at the museum, highlights Shriver and four athletes who illustrate the powerful ways sports can fight stigma and discrimination.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Shriver’s advocacy was personal, inspired by her sister, Rosemary, who had intellectual disabilities. The two swam and sailed together, but there were limited organized opportunities for Rosemary. When Shriver eventually began inviting young people to her backyard to compete, she called the gathering “Camp Shriver.” The first Special Olympics competition was held at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968, and the organization now boasts nearly 5 million participating athletes in 172 countries. Still, Shriver’s presence in the exhibit is minimal, though her hat and clipboard are on display. “She’s there as the originator, but it’s more about the athletes, which is in the spirit of her,” Ott says. “She wasn’t an egotistical person, and so it was never about her.”

Marty Sheets

Marty Sheets’ ski hat (Hugh Talman/Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)

There’s no maximum age limit for Special Olympics competitors, and North Carolina athlete Sheets, who was born with Down syndrome, took full advantage: He was there for the first Games in 1968 and competed until 2009, winning around 250 medals. He competed in events like downhill skiing, golf, swimming and weightlifting (his ski hat and a competition bib are on display in the exhibit). Pretty impressive for a guy whose doctor once predicted he would never even learn to tie his shoes. “He played every possible sport, and he competed pretty much all his life,” Ott says. “His parents adored him. Their basement was like a shrine to his medals.” Sheets died in 2015 at age 62.

Ricardo Thornton
If there were such thing as the home team in Special Olympics, D.C. would be rooting for Thornton, who was born and raised in the city. After being abandoned at birth, he was sent to Forest Haven, a D.C.-run institution for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he met his future wife, Donna, but they weren’t allowed to wed because they were wards of the District of Columbia. Participating in Special Olympics “gave him confidence and discipline, and helped him fight for them to be able to get married,” Ott says. “Which they did, in 1984. They have grandchildren now.” Off the field, Thornton began working at the DC Public Library in 1978, and President Obama appointed him to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities in 2014.

Loretta Claiborne

Loretta Claiborne’s T-shirt (Hugh Talman/Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)

When Claiborne was born in 1953, she was partially blind and had an intellectual disability; she wasn’t able to walk or speak until age 4. At the public high school she attended in York, Pa., she was bullied. “She would run away from [her tormentors], and that got her running,” Ott says. Claiborne started competing in Special Olympics in 1970 and has finished more than 25 marathons since. “She was able to channel her anger and isolation into athletics,” Ott says. In 2000, she was the subject of a Disney TV movie called “The Loretta Claiborne Story,” and she continues to give motivational speeches across the country. A T-shirt Claiborne wore in the 1972 International World Summer Games in Los Angeles is among the items in the exhibit.

Lee Dockins
Meet gymnastics wunderkind Dockins, 31, who’s captured medals in events like balance beam, floor routine, uneven bars and vault. (So, basically everything.) She began taking gymnastics lessons when she was 8, and she’s competed around the world, including in the 2007 World Summer Games in Shanghai and the 2011 Games in Athens, Greece. And Dockins, who has Down syndrome, isn’t just a successful athlete: She’s also a coach in her Kentucky hometown. “She coaches all kinds of kids, not just kids with disabilities,” Ott says. “She’s a really great gymnast.” The leather grips and leotard she wore in Shanghai are on display in the exhibit.

National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave. NW; through January, free.