Staging the Games was a monumental task but it brought out the best in us

Athletes taught everyone a lesson

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 14:53

In a field in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1995, as the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Summer Games drew to a close, I turned to my colleagues from Special Olympics Ireland and said: “We can do this and we can do it better and bigger.” From that moment, we never looked back.

The first call I made on returning home was to Fergus Finlay, then special adviser to former tánaiste Dick Spring, to seek government support for our bid to host the Games in Ireland. It would be the first time it would be staged outside the US. His enthusiasm and support was steadfast.

Ireland saw off impressive competition to win the bid to stage what would be the biggest sporting event in the world in 2003. The task ahead was monumental. Nothing like it had been done before in Ireland so there were no templates, only a dream. We had one chance to do it and we had to get it right.

Unity of spirit
Never before, nor since, has our country witnessed such unity of spirit. Ireland came to a halt and the concept of the Games swept the island. Volunteers saluted each other on the streets, motorists offered lifts freely to anyone in a Games uniform. Companies held fundraising initiatives and the media ran story after story.

A senior official from Special Olympics headquarters in Washington flew over to meet us a couple of months before they began. He was speechless at what he saw. He flew with Aer Lingus and read at least six references to the Games in his inflight magazine. When he landed at Dublin Airport, the Special Olympics ad was being played on plasma screens. He then went to an ATM and saw the Games logo on the Bank of Ireland machine.

On the drive into Dublin, his Toyota car was branded with the logo and it was overtaken by a Shell lorry with a giant Games logo on the back. He passed hundreds of Eircom telephone kiosks, also bearing the logo.

He bought a sandwich and was handed a leaflet encouraging him to volunteer. By the time he arrived at RTÉ and met Miriam O’Callaghan in her World Games sweatshirt, he was convinced that Ireland had been taken over by the Games.

And that was just a flying visit. Had he the opportunity to drive around Ireland, he would have seen that every town and village had a large sign at the outskirts, welcoming Special Olympics athletes. Every school was teaching a programme of awareness about disability issues, thanks to An Post.

It wasn’t always like that and we did have our challenges, particularly in the early days. Our biggest and most daunting challenge was to recruit, train, screen, motivate, roster, clothe and feed volunteers.

Sydney Olympics
We had heard great reports about volunteers at the Olympics in Sydney so we recruited an Irish woman who left Australia temporarily to come and work with us for two years.

A staggering 31,000 volunteers signed up to offer their time and talents. Thousands more were on a waiting list. It was the largest volunteer programme in our country’s history and has never been matched.

Raising the finance was another major challenge. We needed €36 million in cash and more than €24 million in value- in-kind services. There were meetings from dawn to dusk seeking this vital support. Our confidence grew with each positive meeting and, one by one, the government, the European Union and major corporations and individuals stepped up to the plate to meet our needs

Our greatest test came five weeks before the Games when the Sars virus broke out. This contagious and life-threatening respiratory infection originated in Asia and affected several countries that would be participating in the Games. We quickly put a plan in place that would allow teams to attend the Games while ensuring the safety of everyone involved.

We delivered on our promise and every team arrived on time, except for Chinese Taipei which arrived two days late.

Accommodation was a huge logistical challenge. We needed to find beds for 7,000 athletes, 3,000 coaches and thousands of family members that all travelled from 160 countries.

Through the host town programme, communities in 177 towns and villages the length and breadth of Ireland opened their hearts and homes in a show of unparalleled love and hospitality. The memory of those experiences is very much alive today and hundreds of welcome signs still stand.

Ultimate legacy
We wanted the Games to be successful in terms of what they would leave behind. The ultimate legacy is that children and adults with intellectual disabilities now have a better life as a result of those Games.

Within months, we saw the introduction of the National Disability Bill 2004 and the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill 2004. There was increased Government funding for services for people with disabilities ensuring they were no longer dependent on goodwill or charity for their basic needs.l

Mary Davis was chief executive of the 2003 World Summer Games and is president and managing director of Special Olympics Europe/Eurasia.