Joined by Maplewood High School student Justin Lam, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders lit the cauldron to declare open the first ever Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on May 14.
The flame in the cauldron will burn for the duration of the Games that end on May 17.
“On behalf of the men and women of our Service, I am extremely humbled to be standing before you tonight as not only the host agency for this event, but as the honourary chair,” he said. “Law enforcement in Toronto and around the world have been active advocates, fundraisers and supporters of Special Olympics.”
Last week, Saunders and an athlete went to Chicago where the first Special Olympic Games were held.
The Eternal Flame of Hope outside Soldier Field was used to light the lantern for the Special Olympics Torch Run in Toronto.
“That flame of hope is a beacon to promote inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities and everyone in the entire world,” said the Chief.
He thanked the volunteers for the inordinate amount of time they put in to make the Games a success.
“Volunteering is the lifeblood of these Games and without these selfless acts, these Games would not be possible,” added Saunders.
Mayor John Tory, who is also a member of the Toronto Police Services Board, said the city is delighted to host athletes, their coaches and other officials from around the world.
“It is even more pleasurable because you, the athletes, inspire us,” he said. “I hope to get to see some of the events over the next few days… I have had the privilege of having two of my very close family members who are people with intellectual disabilities and I wish that 50 years ago, they had a program like this that gives you a chance to inspire all of us.”
Kate Young, the Member of Parliament for London West, represented Dr. Kirsty Duncan who is the Minister of Science and Sport.
“Like Kirsty, I love events like this that celebrate sport, youth and inclusion,” she said.
Last year, the federal government significantly boosted its funding for Special Olympics by $16 million over five years.
“There’s going to be $2 million ongoing after that,” said Young. “…We believe that everyone, regardless of age, gender or ability should have the chance to participate in sport and to experience all that it has to offer.”
Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford thanked Toronto Police and all the volunteers for their hard work in helping to put on the Games.
“Each and every one of you are absolute champions,” he noted. “Ontario is proud to have this opportunity to host what I am sure will be an incredible display of athleticism, personal development and most importantly sportsmanship.”
Prior to the opening ceremony, police officers from Toronto and around the world took part in the final leg of the Unity Run hosted by Toronto Police Service.
London Police Service Sgt. Mark McGugan, the Director of the Ontario Law Enforcement Torch Run, lit the torch at Queen’s Park to start the 3.9-kilometre run.
“This is an amazing moment,” he said. “Toronto has done an excellent job to bring the world here. This is the first time we are doing this and hopefully it will catch on and go worldwide.”
Australia was represented by six officers in the Unity Run through the streets of downtown Toronto.
“It’s incredibly important for us to be here because the LETR (Law Enforcement Torch Run) is a worldwide organization and this just reinforces that,” said Senior Sgt. Mick Olsen. “Here we have so many people from so many countries united by a common goal getting together to celebrate, to share and to learn. We see the value of that and that is what we are here for.”
In the early 1960s, a group of students at Beverley Public School were selected for University of Toronto sports scientist Dr. Frank Hayden's study on the effects of regular exercise on the fitness levels of children with an intellectual disability.
His research challenged the prevailing mindset of the day – one that claimed that it was the disability itself that prevented children from fully participating in play and recreation. Through rigorous scientific method, he proved that it was simply a lack of opportunity to participate. Given that opportunity, people with an intellectual disability could acquire the necessary skills to participate in sport and become physically fit.
Dr. Hayden’s proposal for a national sport competition caught the attention of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (she started Camp Shriver in 1962 that evolved into Special Olympics), serving as inspiration for the inaugural Special Olympics competition in 1968 in Chicago.
Canada was represented by a group of 12 students and a teacher from Beverley Public School as well as Toronto Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong who was the Honourary team captain.
Nearly 2,000 athletes will compete in track & field, basketball, bocce, soccer and floor hockey in this week’s inaugural Games in the Greater Toronto Area.