We must suppose that most people have seen the famous scene in the movie Forrest Gump in which the lead character as a child runs out of his awkward leg braces. To runners, that scene typically has special significance. Surely it is one of the most liberating scenes in all of moviehood. Here’s the perpetually constrained child running free from his own limitations.
That is the central theme of the movie, as Forrest Gump transcends all the limitations imposed on him by the world. His intellect is admittedly suspect, yet his judgment often is not.
He uses his running at first to get where he wants to go. But first, he must escape the rocks and anger of his bully tormentors. They threaten and strike him with stones, then chase him down the country lane on their bikes. But Forrest, having earned his strength through toil in the braces, leaves them all behind.
I remember crying the first time I saw that scene. It plays to all the empathy I feel in life for those who struggle and somehow break free. Our society has seen fit to celebrate the efforts of paralympic athletes for these same reasons. So many people cope and manage with disabilities in life. Often their conditions are wrought through no choice of their own. But even for those who suffer accidents of their own making, the will to overcome the challenges of physical or mental disability is a redeeming grace.
And the right thing to do in life is to empathize and encourage those who face such obstacles, and to love them. That’s what the character Jenny did for Forrest Gump. Admittedly she struggled with loving him as the world worked so hard to divide them from each other. Ultimately she came to understand their love was the one real thing in the world, and she bore a child from that love. And when Forrest learns of the existence of the child, and see that the small boy will not face the same challenges he has been forced to face in life; of intellect, and disability, he is almost crushed with confusion and joy.
The mocking souls
One of the easy foils in comedy is to suggest that someone could compete better in the Special Olympics than the actual Olympics. Such efforts of compassion and joy toward the needy or disadvantaged also are easily mocked by those possessed of fragile ego and weak spirit.
Mainstream attempts to empathize with the cause of Special Olympics athletes produce odd compromises. None other than Johnny Knoxville of MTV and Jackass fame starred in a movie titled The Ringer, which featured Special Olympics as a foil in the scheme of the main character to pay off his debts. I was working closely with contacts at Special Olympics when the movie was being made and shown. Most of the hard-working professionals and volunteers at the organization simply gulped hard and hoped it was not too offensive. That question remains to this day, for the movie featured actual special needs actors in key roles, and created some empathy in the process. But the premise was goofy. Such are the tradeoffs in building public image and managing a brand.
History of Special Olympics
Last year I was in attendance at a Chicago City Council meeting when a prominent Chicago alderman that had served along with the “original” Mayor Richard Daley describe how the Special Olympics once had to fight for the right to use the term “Olympics.”
When the organizers led by Eunice Shriver Kennedy first formed Special Olympics in Chicago, they were told to cease using the Olympic name by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) led by Avery Brundage, who happened to own some rental property in the City of Chicago. When Brundage sent a cease and desist letter to Special Olympics, the committee turned to Mayor Daley for help. Daley made a call to Brundage and said, “Hello Avery,” (we paraphrase here) “We’ve got these people in Chicago starting this nice little program called Special Olympics. And we hear you’re telling them they can’t use the word ‘olympics’ in their name. Well, we’d really like to let them use the name, wouldn’t we? And we’d hate to have our inspectors sent down to check your property for any problems…”
That’s a true story as related by Alderman Ed Burke. I sat there listening to him relate the story on the day last summer that a team of Special Olympic athletes was recognized during a City Council meeting. Burke laughed about the fact that the Chicago Way has always been effective in getting things done. And yes, it was a threat of sorts that helped Special Olympics overcome the conservative ways of one Avery Brundage, proving that while some threats are driven by evil, others can lead to social justice.
Special Olympics now serves millions of athletes worldwide, and even promotes life skills, public speaking and other training for special needs people.
I have attended the winter and summer State Games here in Illinois, and when 5000 athletes converge at Illinois State Univerity in Normal, Illinois each summer, it is a moving sight. An unlike the actual Olympics, the Special Olympics state competitions take place every year. There are even national and international competitions. Just like the Summer and Winter Games of the Olympic movement.
Getting the story straight
At one point in my position as marketing manager for a large newspaper, I collaborated with Special Olympics to strike a deal to use subscription sales to raise money for the organization. The salespeople going door-to-door were given a script to use that led with the clear statement, “I am from the (newspaper name) and we’re selling subscriptions that benefit the Special Olympics.”
The aggressive sales crew leaders saw advantage in flipping that sentence around. Their salespeople began by stating, “Hi, we’re from Special Olympics…” But then they unwittingly called on the home of the regional director of Illinois Special Olympics. I new the guy as a friend by that point, and he gave me a call at home the very next day asking for an explanation about the breach in contract. Obviously, I apologized profusely for the abuse of trust. The next day I confronted the circulation department for their error. After a mumbled apology from the circulation manager, I warned them the program was at high risk if it happened again.
A worthwhile cause like Special Olympics is worth advocating and worth defending in its creation and administration. Giving all those people opportunities to perform is critical to our role as stewards and respect for other human beings. Volunteers for Special Olympics will tell you that they get much more back in gratitude and joy than they put in.
And until you’ve actually attended a State Games and witnessed 5000 athletes at the track, and double or triple the number of volunteers assisting in track and field events, you cannot know the importance of that call made by Richard J. Daley to Avery Brundige all those years ago.
It’s a vicious truth that defending disadvantaged people takes absolute persistence. There are always mean kids running around in life. And there are equally mean adults ready to throw rhetorical rocks and mean words, who are all too willing and able to run over the Forrest Gumps of the world.
There but for the Grace of God…
The ugly truth behind the scene in which Forrest Gump is depicted running away from bullies down the lane to his house is the idea that somehow we’re supposed to think, “There but for the Grace of God go I…”
Yet even that supposedly empathetic phrase holds a strain of cruelty. For it is a judgmental manner of looking at life. It presupposes that the person or persons toward whom it is aimed are somehow inferior by way of their disadvantage. That kind of thinking is too easily applied to other life conditions such as race, gender, orientation or nationality.
But we can return to that scene of flight in which Forrest Gump outruns all those conventional brands of thinking. He goes on to succeed through blunt honesty and refusal to accept the low expectations of his supposed fate. Even his friend Lieutenant Dan, who suffers loss of both legs during the Vietnam War, struggles to understand this lesson. “I was supposed to die!” he screams at Gump. But the liberal honesty of Forrest Gump refuses to accept that nihilistic view of life as well.
That’s why I almost cry every time I watch that scene with Forrest Gump running out of leg braces. We all have our disabilities, and we all have our real or virtual leg braces. And you must keep on running lest they hold you back from what you truly want to experience in life.
Run, Forrest, Run!