The seed for the Special Olympics was planted in 1963, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver began a summer camp at her Rockville, Md., home for 100 children and adults medically diagnosed as mentally retarded.

This experience showed the potential that sports held for them. By 1968, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation agreed to start a national fitness program for the mentally retarded in the US.

That year the Kennedy Foundation, started years earlier by Mrs. Shriver's father, joined forces with the Chicago Park District to host the first International Special Olympics World Games. The inaugural event attracted 1,000 participants from 26 states and Canada to Soldier Field in Chicago. Track and field and swimming were the only two sports.

Other key dates:

1970: Chicago again plays host to twice as many athletes (2,000) from all 50 states and three other countries.

1972: The University of California at Los Angeles welcomes the third World Games. The year before, the United States Olympic Committee granted rare authorization for the event to use the word ''Olympics.''

1977: The Special Olympics initiates Winter Games, with skiing and skating events in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Subsequent winter competitions are held in Vermont, Utah, jointly by Nevada and California, and Austria. In 1997, Toronto and Collingwood will host the World Winter Games in Canada.

1979: The fifth World Games, at the State University of New York at Brockport, attract more than 3,500 athletes from 20-plus countries.

1981: The first European Summer Special Olympic Games are held in Brussels.

1985: China becomes the 65th nation to join the Special Olympics movement. The Soviet Union signs on in 1990.

1987: Media attention picks up as ABC-TV devotes a ''Wide World of Sports'' program to the seventh summer games in South Bend, Ind.

1988: The International Olympic Committee officially recognizes and endorses the Special Olympics. Unified Sports, in which athletes with and without mental retardation compete on the same teams, is introduced.

1995: New Haven, Conn., welcomes 7,200 Special Olympians to the ninth World Games (July 1-9).

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