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Agent of change

Frank Hayden, BA’55, LLD’11, created and shaped the Special Olympics movement

by Kathryn Kinahan, BA’86, MLIS’93

Frank Hayden

When Frank Hayden, BA’55, LLD’11, came to see sport as the great equalizer, few understood how 50 years later that steadfast belief would get millions of children and adults with intellectual disabilities off the sidelines and into the game.

It was sport that led the Windsor, Ont., native down the highway to London. While working various jobs after high school, he heard some old school chums were at Western, so he and a couple of buddies drove to London for a visit.

“We met with legendary football coach John Metras; he was great,” Hayden said. “When I was an undergrad at Western, I weighed about 126 pounds, but I tried out for football anyway. I made the first two cuts, and it came to the third and final cut. After practice, Metras called me into his office and he said, ‘Hayden, I don’t want to cut you, but I’d sleep better at night if you’d go down and join the track team.’

“He thought I was going to get killed – he was probably right.”

After a brief time with the track team – where he only “looked fast” – Hayden joined the wrestling team. But a sustained love of football led Hayden to help coach Jack Fairs with the Colts, the university’s intermediate intercollegiate football team.

Off the field, Fairs taught exercise physiology – and that piqued Hayden’s interest.

After graduating from Western, Hayden attended graduate school at the University of Illinois, reputed to be the best fitness lab in the country. Three years later, he received a Master of Science degree followed by a PhD. He completed his graduate work in phases to allow him to return to Canada to work so he could continue his schooling. During this time, he met his bride-to-be and partner in life, Marion.

Upon graduation, Hayden accepted a faculty position at the University of Toronto, where he began researching the effects of exercise on children with intellectual disabilities. He started to spend his mornings at the Beverley School in Toronto working to determine the fitness and performance levels of these long-ignored individuals.

“We were fighting the assumption that because they were mentally handicapped, they were weak, slow, etc. Their fitness level was more a result of their lifestyle – and I had a glimpse of that lifestyle. They were taxied to school every morning and taxied home. When they got home, nobody played with them on the street, nobody bothered to teach them how to ride a bike because they thought they couldn’t do it,” he explained.

“We set up fitness programs and measured the effects. It went amazingly well. We closed the gap between them and the control group by half in one school year. And they were still getting better.”

Hayden documented his work in a research paper in 1963 at the International Conference on the Psychology and Sport in Rome. “I presented my work, went home and waited for the Nobel Prize people to call,” he laughed.

Using his research, Hayden created a fitness program to improve stamina and muscle strength for children with developmental and/or physical disability. The program, presented in booklet form, included tests, practical training sessions, evaluations and directions for putting sessions together.

“Ultimately, we sold 50,000 copies of the booklet within a couple years. So I knew there was a market out there,” Hayden said.

By 1964, Hayden was back at Western as a professor when word came that the Government of Canada had set aside funds for projects to celebrate the nation’s Centennial. Hayden proposed a National Centennial Games for the developmentally disabled and mapped out a plan that included a three-year budget and specifics about organizing and running the games.

Hayden’s proposal caught the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, who requested a meeting.

“I met with Eunice at her Maryland estate. During the meeting, her husband, Sargent Shriver, then-head of the Peace Corps, burst in holding the proposal for the National Centennial Games. He said, ‘Can you do this in the United States?’ And I said, ‘Well, somebody can do it. It’s bigger and more complex but it can be done here, too. But not by me. I have a job. But I’ll be happy to help you in any way if you want to do it,’” Hayden recounted.

“For the next six weeks, I received a barrage of phone calls and telexes asking ‘When are you coming? When are you coming?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m not coming.’ But, they were persistent. And in three months, I was there,” he said.

Hayden worked for the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation in Washington, D.C., from 1965-72. Things were slow materializing, but he continued giving presentations and building his network. His perseverance paid off. Hayden’s proposal for the Centennial Games served as inspiration for the inaugural International Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968 in Soldier Field in Chicago. The event was a cooperative venture of the Kennedy Foundation and the Chicago Park District. 

More than 200 events were staged for approximately 1,000 athletes from 26 states.

Canadian athletes were also represented in those Games, bringing a floor hockey team stateside accompanied by athletic and broadcasting legend Harry ‘Red’ Foster and Toronto Maple Leafs president Harold Ballard. Ballard outfitted the team in Maple Leafs uniforms and recruited George Armstrong, then-captain of the Leafs, to serve as honorary team captain.

Hayden felt it was important to have high-profile people attend the first Games in order to grab the attention of the media and the public.

“The justification for the Games is what they stimulate at the local level. That’s the purpose of the whole exercise. I thought it was better to start at the top and build the house down. Then people see what you’re talking about. We use the excitement of the Games and the power of sport to motivate people and change attitudes,” he said.

From the first games in Chicago, Hayden felt he was on to something special. Special Olympics was incorporated in Washington, D.C., about 10 days after the first Games.

To grow the movement, Hayden convened a conference where Sen. Ted Kennedy announced funding for regional games and directors learned how to build the organization and run the games. “From there, I had six or seven regional games, one of which was Toronto in 1969, that attracted 1,400 athletes from across the country,” he said.

Within two years, the movement was gaining traction and the number of athletes and participating countries grew steadily.

After serving as executive director of the Special Olympics, Hayden return to teach at Western in 1972. In 1975, he joined McMaster University as director of the School of Physical Education and Athletics, a position he held until 1981. But he never strayed too far from his calling.

From 1981-84, Hayden took leave from McMaster to establish the Special Olympics Office of International Development, and served as its first director. He designed and directed the growth of the program to include 50 national organizations. His travels took him across Europe, South and Central America, Asia and the South Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, North America and the Caribbean.

His international work culminated in 1988 with a move to Paris to establish the Office of European Affairs for Special Olympics International. In 1990, he returned to Canada. He served as Special Consultant to Special Olympics Canada until 2000.

Today, the Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities with more than 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries and more than one million volunteers.

Hayden’s lifelong efforts have earned him widespread recognition including investiture as an Officer of the Order of Canada, induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the naming of the Dr. Frank J. Hayden Secondary School in Burlington, and numerous honorary degrees, including one from Western.

But the true testament of his work is the enormous impact on the millions of athletes whose lives were immeasurably changed by the Special Olympics. It is a success rooted in some of his earliest beliefes discovered at Western.

“My experience from travelling the world is that we’re all much more alike than we are different and sport is a great common denominator,” Hayden said.


This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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