The Special Olympics demolished our prejudices and perceptions of disability
Spirit of those heady summer days lives on
The pageantry of the the opening ceremony.
The opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer games at Croke Park
The fireworks display at the opening ceremony of the 2003 games at Croke Park
Special Olympic athlete David McCauley on stage with Nelson Mandela and President Mary McAleese with the Special Olympic Torch before lighting the Flame of Hope at the opening ceremony of the 2003 Games at Croke Park
On a sultry June evening just over a decade ago, the Special Olympics “flame of hope” was extinguished at a closing ceremony in Croke Park.
But the spirit of those heady summer days didn’t die away. The event proved an extraordinary catalyst, swelling the ranks of athletes and creating one of the largest voluntary organisations. It has helped challenge many perceptions – and prejudices – about people with intellectual disabilities.
“But its real impact was the long-term growth and development for people with intellectual disabilities. From volunteers, we keep hearing that you get back far more than you give. Yes, it can be long hours and hard work. But it’s so rewarding to see athletes respond to training and grow in confidence.”
Over the past 10 years, Special Olympics Ireland has added 5,500 new athletes. The number of clubs has doubled to 400. It has expanded to cater for women’s football, pitch and putt, badminton and kayaking.
Internationally, an average of 2.5 per cent of people with intellectual disabilities are involved with the Special Olympics movement in way. In Ireland, the figure is 33 per cent.
One of the most dramatic changes has been the increase in people giving their time for free to coach, organise or encourage athletes.
In the year before the Special Olympics World Games in 2003, there were about 2,000 volunteers. Today, Ireland has some 25,000 volunteers, making it one of the largest voluntary organisations.
It’s a big contrast to the late 1970s, when the organisation started out with a handful of volunteers and participants. The first major event was held a year later in Gormanston College with 200 participants.
The idea of a global festival being launched in a jam-packed Croke Park featuring U2, Nelson Mandela and thousands of athletes from around the world would have been mind-boggling at the time.
Sporting activities were confined to those attending institutions run by large voluntary organisations like the Daughters of Charity. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first clubs were established.
“Our ambition was that we wanted to be able to have a club near to anyone with an intellectual disability who wanted to be involved in sport,” says Kavanagh. “There are hundreds of clubs now.”
One of the most powerful aspects of the movement is its ability to demolish prejudice. How people with intellectual disabilities are viewed has changed in the wider community – but it has also changed within the organisation itself.
The notion, says Kavanagh, that a group of athletes would head to far-off Asia to take part in games was unimaginable. Yet, that’s what a group just did for the most recent Winter Games in Korea. Through leadership programmes, she says, athletes have flourished by developing personal skills and working with mentors.