Special memories

Athletes, families, volunteers and organisers recall the impace of a summer Games in Ireland

The fireworks display at the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games at Croke Park. Photograph: Alan Betson

The fireworks display at the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games at Croke Park. Photograph: Alan Betson


Tracy Piggott, RTÉ presenter
It was such a magical experience with so much outpouring of goodwill and affection. I remember particularly one event in the pool where one youngster who was very physically challenged was at least two lengths behind the rest of the swimmers. The crowd encouraged her every inch of the way and when she finally finished, a good few minutes after the previous competitor, the place erupted. It was an incredible atmosphere that I will never forget. I looked around and there was not a dry eye in the house, including mine. I think the Special Olympics brought out the very best in people.

Nora Owen, former Minister for Justice
I’ll never forget the night of the opening ceremony when the motorcycle cops came in from the north and the south and did that slow circular movement around Croke Park with the lights flashing. There were two big Special Branch guys standing beside me at the back of the stadium. I turned to say ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ and neither would look at me and I knew why - because they were both crying. It was quite an emotional moment. They spoke to me with their heads turned to one side. Tears were running down my face. These were quite emotional moments.

Colin Farrell, actor
Congratulations to Special Olympics Ireland on the 10th anniversary of what was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and I think the lives of many people in Ireland. An extraordinary achievement from all the athletes, and all the volunteers, and all the aides, and basically Special Olympics Ireland as an organisation, and as a facility for a sense of unity and comradeship and togetherness and competition. And here’s to another 10 years of success and brotherhood.

Rita Lawlor, former Special Olympics athlete
On the night of the opening ceremony I was on the stage getting the party started but I really enjoyed it. I was interviewing athletes, which I really enjoyed. I was grinning my head off with the atmosphere. It was really lovely. People used to say: “I saw you on the telly” so it was great fun and it gives you a lift.

Moya Doherty, producer
We have been blessed to experience extraordinary nights in theatres and arenas around the world but none could compare to that unique and unforgettable midsummer Croke Park event for the opening of the Special Olympics. We were honoured at Tyrone Productions to be invited by Denis O’Brien and the Special Olympics Organisation to produce the event. On that starry, starry night, everyone shone brightly.

With everything timed and planned to perfection, we were ready for the off. Then a light shower of rain fell and our hearts missed a beat. But the mops came out, the stage was dried down so that the performers were safe and the surface secure. The sun shone.

The memory is held forever in a special hard-drive in the heart, when Bill Whelan’s Riverdance music sang, synchronised by a line of one hundred dancers stretching forever across that stage of stages. I knew at that moment, there would never, and could never, be another like it.

The Edge, U2
It was a great day for everyone in the brand new Croke Park which hosted the Special Olympics on its first trip outside the US. We had the whole world watching and, with the remarkable athletes and the crowd going crazy, it was magical.

Robert Ballagh, artist
I believe, without fear of contradiction, that the invitation to create the setting for the opening ceremony in Croke Park represented the most challenging design task of my career. For example, we were required to provide a stage the full width of the pitch in order to accommodate a line of one hundred Riverdancers, and a central section that would cover the full National Symphony Orchestra. Another important element was the design and fabrication of the Special Olympics flame.

All of this and more was made possible by not only extraordinary hard work and commitment, but also by unprecedented levels of goodwill demonstrated by all those who fully engaged in the event. I salute them all.

Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland
Those Games are the best set of memories I took away from 14 happy years as president of Ireland. When we castigate the days of the Celtic Tiger and remember only greed and hubris, I remember too a nation that, in those days, dug deep into every pocket to bring the games to Ireland, that mobilised every parish to welcome the visiting teams, that put on a show of goodness and fun, courage and crack, like no other before or since. Is it really 10 years? It seems like yesterday we were in Croke Park for that dazzling opening ceremony that thrilled us and filled us with pride in those amazing athletes and in ourselves

Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, RTÉ presenter
I had just returned to work after my third baby, and yes the dreaded Irish twins, I was pregnant again. I popped into Niall Cogley’s office, Head of RTÉ Sport at the time, nice and early with two cups of steaming coffee. I said “I want to work on that gig”. He said “What gig?” I said “the Special Olympics when it comes to Dublin this summer”. His response was sweet but definite. “We don’t have any budget for it, there will be no gig.” But I didn’t believe him. Call it ego or just wisdom, either way the determination and driving force of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver made it happen. So we began, bump and all, as soon as the opening ceremony was over the RTÉ sports department went into action. Being just a visitor to the department I was at the disposal of the team of women and men that look at these special events like a walk in the park. I was, as they describe me, “a bit of colour” but none of us realised the athletes were the colour. Every special event in television is exciting but only one in my 23 years of being a TV presenter moved me so profoundly.

John Treacy, Irish Sports Council and Olympic silver medallist
On a glorious sunny summer’s day in 2003 I went to Morton Stadium to present the medals at the World Games of the Special Olympics. A few things struck me about that day. The athletes and the effort that they put in, each one in their own way getting the most out of themselves. Their excitement as they raised their arms in crossing the finish line. Each one a winner in their hearts and for those that came to watch. The joy in the faces of the volunteers who undoubtedly were having the time of their life. Colin Farrell showing up and almost causing a stampede as he presented some medals. It appeared that the whole of Ireland was smiling for a week. That, in itself, says it all.

Peter Fitzgerald, former deputy Garda commissioner
There are occasions in everybody’s life when one feels the hair on the back of your neck standing up. I can remember being there in the stand that evening in Croker and the Garda motorcycles and the PSNI motorcycles coming in with the sirens going, the lights flashing and the torch being led in. My God, this was really, really, really special. I know that if I live to be a hundred, which I probably won’t, that that’s a memory that will live with me right up until the end. It was very, very, very special.

Brenda Fitzsimons, Irish Times staff photographer
I worked at some of the competitions in Kill Equestrian Centre and I remember thinking the whole approach was so sensitively thought-out. The first time I approached the arena I noticed that there was complete silence and I thought to myself “well there’s nothing happening here.” But when I got there, it was full of spectators. Instead of clapping their hands and cheering, they waved their hands in the air so that they would not frighten the horses. Witnessing that would have tugged at anyone’s heart strings. It even seemed like the horses were protecting the riders, they moved about so carefully. The whole thing just oozed with love and care. It was special in every sense of the word and it was definitely one of the most emotional jobs I’ve ever done.

Duncan McCausland, Retired assistant chief constable of the PSNI
My lasting memory and the one which encapsulates the spirt of those Games is that of the young girl from the USA who fell and broke her leg before she could compete in the roller skating. She lent her skates to an Iraqi girl who could not compete because she had no skates. This was despite the ongoing conflict at that time between their countries. To recognise this simple act of friendship I arranged for the little girl from the USA to carry the Flame of Hope around the roller skating rink. She got a standing ovation from the crowd and there was not a dry eye in the house. This for me summed up everything that happened during the Summer Games of 2003 and is the simple reason I have stayed involved . Special Olympics has a place for everyone.

Miriam O’Callaghan, RTÉ presenter
It was an incredibly moving experience being involved in the Special Olympics. I was lucky enough to be asked to present the live television coverage of the opening ceremony and it remains for me to this day, one of the highlights of both my career and my life. Having the privilege of being surrounded by such awe-inspiring athletes whose courage and talent was breathtaking is something I will always cherish. It was a truly remarkable event.

Jason Sherlock, former Dublin footballer
It’s hard to believe that we are 10 years on from one of the most memorable sporting events ever to take place in this country. I had the privilege to introduce an act on to the stage in the closing ceremony in Croke Park and the atmosphere that night rivalled anything that I had experienced from my playing days with the Dubs.

Matt English, chief executive of Special Olympics Ireland
My first truly awesome experience was seeing, first-hand, Ashbourne coming together as a community to open their hearts to Team Bangladesh and the fanfare that surrounded their arrival. Only a few days later, in Croke Park, at the opening ceremony during the parade of the athletes, some of the Bangladeshi athletes recognised some of their Ashbourne hosts amongst the 80,000 crowd in attendance. They literally stopped in their tracks in the middle of the parade and insisted in both waving and hugging their new-found friends. This was not factored into to the meticulously-planned opening ceremony schedule. Such powerful bonds were forged in an unforgettable fortnight in Irish history.

Sheila O’Flanagan, author and board member of Irish Sports Council
I remember the sheer determination and skill of people with an intellectual disability. Those athletes were viewed by what they could do rather than what they couldn’t do.

I also remember how we as a nation, came together, created something truly extraordinary and made it happen. Hopefully we can rediscover that positive attitude in all aspects of our lives.