“I’m only taking a few photographs but it brings huge joy to the athletes”

Highlight was witnessing a meeting between Mandela and Ali

When Nelson met Muhammad: Nelson Mandela lands a “straight left” to the chin of former world champion Muhammad Ali as South African Special Olympics Athlete Rofhiwa looks on during the 2003 Games in Ireland. Photograph: Ray McManus /Sportsfile

When Nelson met Muhammad: Nelson Mandela lands a “straight left” to the chin of former world champion Muhammad Ali as South African Special Olympics Athlete Rofhiwa looks on during the 2003 Games in Ireland. Photograph: Ray McManus /Sportsfile

Thu, Jun 20, 2013, 21:20

Photographer Ray McManus has covered so many Special Olympics summer and winter world games that he struggles to add them all up. He founded the Sportsfile photo agency more than 30 years ago and had no connection with the Special Olympics movement until he was invited to cover a sports event years later. “To be honest with you, it was like eating a rare steak. Once I got the taste of it, I couldn’t leave it. It’s like a taste of happiness. I’m hooked on it,” he said.

Defining moment
There was one defining moment for him. He had taken a photograph of an athlete at a competition in Edinburgh and it was published in this newspaper. He brought a copy of The Irish Times to the event the following day. “The young man in the picture looked at the paper and he ran around the room saying: ‘Look, I’m in the paper. I’m in the paper’. If Sonia O’Sullivan had won gold in the Olympics it wouldn’t have been as big a thrill as this man got. And I just felt that through taking a few photographs I was giving fierce enjoyment to the athletes and promoting what is ultimately a very fair game.”

So when the World Games came to Ireland, he was the photographer everyone looked to. After a suggestion from him, the Press Photographers’ Association of Ireland (PPAI) set up a pool system. All PPAI members working at the events took as many pictures of athletes as they could and then waived copyright on their work. The photographs were made available to the world’s media for free. “We had pictures published in South Africa, America, in places we don’t even know about, and they may still be used today for all we know.”

Career highlight
His job has taken him around the world to many Olympic Games, rugby and soccer world cups but the highlight of his working life came courtesy of the Special Olympics. “I was there when Packie Bonner made the save. I was there when Liam Brady scored in the Heysel Stadium and I was there when Katie Taylor won her gold medal but nothing compares with being there in the Four Seasons Hotel when Muhammad Ali squared up to Nelson Mandela.” Both men were in Dublin for the World Games.

“To be honest, there’s a nominal shake in the photograph because I was trembling at the time. There’s not too many people in the world who can say that they met the greatest sportsman who ever lived and potentially the greatest statesman, in the one room.”

He happily expects to be photographing Special Olympics events for many years to come. “It’s like glue, once you are caught, you are caught, but nobody minds. It’s a privilege.”