Impact of Special Olympics: Families

Family members tend to be very involved with their athletes’ sports experiences. They often serve as coaches, volunteers, fund raisers, and support Special Olympics in many ways. In fact, Special Olympics has called families “the most powerful and valuable natural resource” available to the organization.

Similar to its impact on athletes, anecdotal evidence suggests that Special Olympics has a significant, positive effect on family members of athletes. This has been commonly understood since the beginning of Special Olympics. More recently, empirical data have been gathered and found to support this notion and expand knowledge of its scope and depth. Many of the studies cited in the previous section (Impact of Special Olympics: Athletes) include interviews with family members to measure impact, including studies in Latin America and China. Two studies in the United States, one specifically aimed at families, also illustrate a stronger effect on family members than might be expected, particularly on perceptions of athletes and social networks both within the family and the wider community.

Family Involvement in Special Olympics

In every country surveyed, family members of Special Olympics athletes are actively involved in the organization. In the United States, 82% of families report that at least one parent attends competitions “always” or “most of the time.”1 A strong majority (75%) of family members in the United States are also involved with Special Olympics beyond watching competitions – 42% of family members have coached; 39% have volunteered; 24% have participated in fund raising, publicity, or recruitment; and 17% have played as a Unified partner.1 These statistics are similar for countries in Latin America and China.2,3

On effect Special Olympics has on family members is their perceptions of their athlete and of people with intellectual disability in general. In a study of family members in the United States, many parents comment that they are impressed, and often surprised, by their child’s athletic ability, level of effort, competitive nature, and demonstrations of sportsmanship.4 This is found in studies examining the impact of Special Olympics in China and Latin America as well. Family members in those nations speak optimistically about their athlete’s future regarding continued and improved independence, employment, and overall position in their families and in society at large. 2,3 Family members attribute positive changes in their athletes to involvement in Special Olympics.

Teachers involved in the Special Olympics Young Athletes program also note a positive effect on family members. In Romania, for example, teachers say there is an increase in the level of trust parents displayed in their child’s abilities and in communication between parents and children.5

Special Olympics involvement also has positive effects on how family members relate to one another and to their athlete. A majority of parents in the United States (70%) report that Special Olympics has a positive effect on time spent as a family, either increasing the amount of time spent together or increasing the types of shared activities.4 This outlook is shared by siblings as well – 82% of whom feel that Special Olympics has a positive impact on their family.4

Finally, Special Olympics also provides positive social networking opportunities outside of the family structure. Specifically, 75% of parents in the United States report that Special Olympics has at least some impact on their social relationships outside of family; 38% felt that it has “a lot” of impact.4 It is clear from the findings that many families find a social support community within Special Olympics that has little or nothing to do with sports.

“Special Olympics has introduced me to three other families, and it’s like a group,” one mother explains. “On Saturdays when the athletes bowl, it is our time to sit and talk and cry on each others’ shoulders, or be proud and happy. It’s brought us together. I’ve made a lot of friends.”

In the 2013 Reach Report, Special Olympics reports more than 10,000 family leaders around the world and a total of 483,800 registered family members.

Talking Points

  • Families are critical to the success of Special Olympics and the organization provides invaluable benefits to family members who become involved. In fact, Special Olympics considers family members to be the most powerful and valuable natural resource available to the organization.
  • A family is an inter-dependent unit. When an athlete/child is positively impacted, so is the family; when the family benefits, it is also felt by the child. And, families feel that the benefits give them a stronger place in the community.
  • The impact of Special Olympics extends beyond sports. It gives family members hope, optimism, stronger family connections, and a social network who understand their concerns and their joys.

Call for Actions

  • Support Special Olympics Family Support Networks where they exist. If there is no such network, encourage family members with whom you have contact to start one.
  • Increase engagement with family members. Encourage them to become more involved by stressing the value to THEM, as well as the value to their athlete and Special Olympics. Many family members make excellent advocates before policymakers and business leaders.
  • Share your stories of families being impacted by Special Olympics online at so they can be passed along to global sponsors, policymakers, and other stakeholders.


1. Siperstein G, Hardman M, Harada C, Parker R, McGuire J. A comprehensive study of Special Olympics programs in the United States. Boston and Salt Lake City: University of Massachusetts Boston and University of Utah; 2005.

2. Harada C, Parker R, Siperstein G. A comprehensive national study of Special Olympics programs in China. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston; 2008.

3. Harada C, Parker R, Siperstein G. A comprehensive national study of Special Olympics programs in Latin America: findings from Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston; 2008.

4. Kersh J, Siperstein G. The Contributions of Special Olympics to Positive Family Functioning. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston; 2008.

5. Favazza P, Siperstein G. Evaluation of Young Athletes program. Washington, D.C.: Special Olympics and University of Massachusetts-Boston; 2006.