A Very Special Olympics
By Lynn Tierney, Contributor
August / September 2003
Lynn Tierney reports on the Games in Ireland.
“Let me win but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.” The Special Olympics Oath goes to the heart of the matter: In the effort lies the victory, in the challenge lies the glory. It’s all about the striving to do your best, not besting your competitor. This philosophy is at the center of Special Olympics, an organization founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to provide adults and children with mental retardation a year-round program of sports training and athletic competition in order to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in sharing gifts, skills and friendship with other Special Olympics athletes and the community.
This June, Ireland experienced the impact of Special Olympics first-hand as 7,000 athletes from nearly 160 countries came to compete in 21 sports in 22 venues throughout the country as part of the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2003. This gathering was the largest sporting event to be held in the world this year, and the first time the international competition has been held outside the United States. The spirit and determination of the Games is evident not only within the hearts of the athletes, but in the hearts of the citizens who have gone all out to welcome the Special Olympics athletes and their families and coaches to Ireland.
“Forty years later, I am proud to have returned home to Ireland,” said Eunice Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, who made that first trip to Ireland with her brother President Kennedy. “I am even more proud to come to this stadium tonight to the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, to a place where people with intellectual disabilities no longer have to be ashamed or afraid to live their dreams.
“Tonight, you are all part of the year’s largest sporting event, and the world is watching.”
In magnificent opening ceremonies held June 21 in Dublin’s Croke Park, nearly 75,000 friends, families and supporters cheered wildly as each delegation of athletes entered the stadium. Celebrities, politicians, world-renowned sports figures and supporters from all walks of life participated in kicking off a grand week of sport. President Mary McAlese, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, former South African President Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali were among those participating in the official opening ceremonies. Tenor Ronan Tynan, a champion disabled athlete himself, returned home to Ireland from New York to perform a specially composed anthem, “May We Never Have to Say Goodbye” with Rita Connolly, the National Symphony Orchestra, and a huge chorus. Bono and U2, the Corrs, Samantha Mumba, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jon Bon Jovi, and actor Colin Farrell were among the star-studded lineup that brought the excited crowd to their feet as they entertained and encouraged.
The stadium was filled and the parade of athletes began at dusk, as Master of Ceremonies Patrick Kielty called for the delegations in alphabetical order. As each team entered a huge roar went up from the crowd. The teams varied in size from the huge 900-person delegation from the United States to the single-digit delegations from some tiny Caribbean islands. The team from Iraq received a huge welcome (Denis O’Brien, an Irish businessman, sent his own plane to get them). No matter how big or small, each group was greeted enthusiastically with hoots and flag waving thanks to the color-coordinated flags guests found in their seats.
The excitement and anticipation built as the hometown crowd waited for the announcement, and the final team to enter the stadium was Team Ireland. As the members of the team lined up outside the stadium listening to the cheers and fanfare, their excitement was almost too much to contain. Actor Colin Farrell wandered in among them to the delight of the athletes and offered them greetings and encouragement. He joked with one of the athletes, who was getting a last-minute hug from another guest, that he had to concentrate on his sport and not be “robbing kisses at every turn.” This moment is what they had worked towards for so long. Members of the kayaking team, who will be participating in demonstration sport exhibitions, got some last minute advice from coach John Daley: “This is all for you: Look sharp now.”
As they rounded the corner and made their way into the stadium they were overwhelmed. The military escorts along the route saluted them, the Garda (police) stood tall and applauded, some stopped for pictures, and there were smiles and tears everywhere. As they moved along the route in formation many tried to spot their families in the crowd. A fortunate few did and were able to single out fathers and mothers and brothers, sisters and friends all with tears in their eyes and looks of pride on their faces. One young athlete with double blonde braids and a huge grin made a clear break the minute she spotted her mother and flew into her arms. She was quickly hugged by her proud Mum and pointed back to the parade. Another young gymnast spotted his younger brother perched atop his Dad’s shoulders and they exchanged a meaningful and tearful salute, the younger brother shouting, “You’re number one.” The feeling of welcome and goodwill was palpable in the air as Team Ireland took their seats on the field and the entertainment got underway.
In addition to families, friends and guests in the crowd, there were hundreds of host families from 170 villages and towns throughout Ireland who, for a week prior to the games, had put up various team members providing the personal welcome the athletes will remember for years to come. So many families had bonded deeply with their guests; they had done everything possible to travel to Dublin to share the evening’s events.
As the evening’s excitement grew to a fever pitch, the Special Olympics Flame of Hope was carried into the stadium on the last leg of a journey that began in Athens, Greece, continued across 15 European countries and reached every corner of Ireland. The Law Enforcement Torch Run involved law enforcement agencies around the globe in a series of torch relays leading up to each state’s or nation’s Special Olympics Summer Games. Law enforcement officers raised money for their local games by garnering sponsorship for their relays.
In Croke Park, on the last leg of the run leading up to the 2003 International Summer Games, the torch was accompanied by members of the Irish police and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There was an emotional climax as the torch was passed to Special Olympics athlete David McCaulay, 16, of Derry who lit the World Games Flame and officially signaled the start of the competition. Fireworks capped the evening’s events.
As the games continued throughout the week, families, coaches and guests spent time touring and shopping. In the Guinness Storehouse on Sunday, hundreds of visitors learned the nuances of brewing while many others sought out St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, Stephen’s Green and many other attractions. It also appeared that local pubs and restaurants were benefiting directly from the influx of participants as the lines for tables grew throughout the opening weekend. Most shops, restaurants and hotels have offered discounts and all are offering a true Irish welcome.
Throughout the city there was also evidence of the massive volunteer effort that has captured the imagination of almost everyone as people from all walks of life join in to help. School principals were making beds in hotels and housewives were transportation coordinators. Avril Keough, a mother of seven from Dublin, pitched in to be a VIP escort and pressed her husband into service as a driver. “It is the least we can do,” she said, “and a chance to give something back as a thank you for the health and good fortune we have had with all of our children. It’s also so exciting I couldn’t bear not to be a part of it.”
She was not alone in that feeling. ♦