Afghan athletes won the hearts of people in Ballygar

War halted town’s attempt to help orphans

Mary O’Keeffe, who was chairperson of the Ballygar Special Olympics Host Town for the Afghan team in 2003, displaying an album of photographs from the time at the sign which still stands at the entrance to Ballygar. Included in the photograph are Geraldine Kelly who was secretary and Pat Gilmore who was public relations officer. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy. 13/6/2013

Mary O’Keeffe, who was chairperson of the Ballygar Special Olympics Host Town for the Afghan team in 2003, displaying an album of photographs from the time at the sign which still stands at the entrance to Ballygar. Included in the photograph are Geraldine Kelly who was secretary and Pat Gilmore who was public relations officer. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy. 13/6/2013

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 01:00

Ballygar was one of 177 cities, towns and villages hosting teams of athletes from around the world before the competitions began.

The Co Galway town had pulled out all the stops to impress their team from Senegal. The town was decorated with Senegal’s green, yellow and red flags and window boxes were painted in the same colours. Children were given 200 small flags to wave during the torch run and as the team arrived. But then the bad news came. The Senegalese team had pulled out, citing organisational problems.

“It was very, very close to the time and really and truly it was a huge disappointment,” recalls Mary O’Keeffe, chairwoman of the host town committee.

“But then, thanks to be God, Mary Davis [chief executive of the World Games] rang us and asked would we host Afghanistan. We were delighted because we knew other towns had also been let down but didn’t get another team.”

Books were quickly consulted to find Afghanistan’s flag and the flag-making resumed. Window boxes were repainted black, red and green and Ballygar was ready for Afghanistan.


200 torches
She says no one had a wink of sleep on Monday night, June 17th and at 3am the team arrived in Ballygar. The main street was lit with the fire from 200 torches. “It was such a wonderful sight.”

The team comprised three male athletes and a female, all in their teenage years and all from orphanages. “They came with nothing, absolutely nothing. They just had what they were wearing.”

She says the athletes quickly won the hearts of the local people. They visited eight schools, took part in a school concert, played bowling, went on a trip on the River Shannon and went shopping in Athlone. When they trained, crowds turned out to see them. “There were tears on both sides when they left.”

Ms O’Keeffe says people began to think about what life would be like for the children when they returned to Kabul. One athlete had a prosthesis that needed to be replaced, another had serious sight problems and another had muscular problems.

The Ballygar people decided to help the orphanage where the athletes lived. They set up the “Ballygar - Afghan” fund and ran fundraising events, all of which accumulated more than €21,000.


Kitchen and dining area
Comdt Brendan Geraghty was on peace-keeping duty in Kabul and he and his army colleagues worked with the group to identify a project. They used the money to fund a new kitchen and dining area in the Central Orphanage which was home to 1,500 children.

“But then war broke out and that was the end of it,” she says. “It wasn’t safe anymore.” They lost contact with the athletes about two years after the Games and don’t know where they are now.

A plastic surgeon in Belfast had offered to help the athlete who needed a prosthesis and there were hopes that another colleague would help the athlete with sight problems.

“But we couldn’t do anything about that because it became too dangerous. And there was no way we would be allowed to bring them back here,” she says.

‘God love them’
“At one stage we thought the mistake we made was to let them go back at all, but of course that wouldn’t be possible to keep them here. Still, you could understand why people don’t go back. God love them, they didn’t have a choice.”

She says the people of Ballygar still talk about the athletes and the excitement they brought.

“We’d love to make contact with them again. They’ll never be forgotten here.”