Wonderfully wacky moments in a star-spangled week of stirring contests

How much has changed for the families of people with intellectual disability since then?

Nicola Higgins waves to the crowd  before competing in the preliminary round of division 4 kayaking. Photograph: Alan Betson

Nicola Higgins waves to the crowd before competing in the preliminary round of division 4 kayaking. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Jun 21, 2013, 01:01

It’s a struggle to believe it’s a whole 10 years since Ireland hosted the Special Olympics and created those magical days that lingered long in the memory.

It was a star-spangled event, from the opening ceremony when Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali lit up Croke Park, to the many other familiar faces who turned up, among them the late Seve Ballesteros.

The true stars, though, were the 30,000 volunteers; the host towns and villages; the families, friends and coaches of the athletes and, above all, the athletes themselves.

They combined to create stirring sporting contests, moments to cherish, plenty that made you smile. Not least the day El Salvador won football gold by beating Costa Rica and the team removed their shirts to reveal the GAA shirts of their host county, Kerry.

“Kerr-ee, Kerr-ee, Kerr-ee,” they chanted as they stepped on to the rostrum to collect their medals. “El Salvador, El Salvador, El Salvador,” the Tralee crew chanted back, before they were showered with flowers by their guests.

Wonderfully wacky, a scene re-created through the week.

Most striking of all, though, were the extraordinary support networks around each competitor – tireless, loving armies of families and friends and those who had nurtured the athletes’ development in sport. Gerard Geraghty was one, his daughter Sharon, from Tallaght, a member of Ireland’s kayaking team.

“I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll ever see the like of this again. Ireland never will. Even if we got the World Cup, it’ll never be the same,” he said.

‘As good as anyone’
“For years and years these people were ignored – children, adults, all forgotten about. It’s about time Ireland as a whole stood up and said: ‘hang on a minute, these people are as good as anyone. Let’s help them’. Wake up. We can’t lose this, we can’t!”

That echoed the hope of all those involved, but behind it was a sense that once the show was over things would go back to being just the same – or even worse. The endless struggles, the lack of support, the lack of facilities, the cutbacks.

The boos that greeted the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the opening ceremony confirmed the anger, but others opted to remain quiet for the week that was in it.

The families, friends, coaches and volunteers carry on and the Special Olympics movement lives on, but how many of them would tell you things changed for the better after that wonderful week in 2003?