First day goes swimmingly as Special Olympics team win gold


Supporters of Team Ireland were among the most conspicuous at the opening ceremony

IRELAND TOOK its first medal at the Special Olympics in Athens yesterday evening after a wonderful performance by swimmer Aisling Beacom.

From Wicklow town, Beacom came third place in the 800m freestyle event to the cheers of a large number of family and supporters at the Olympic Aquatic Centre, built for the 2004 Olympic games.

The games officially got under way on Saturday night after a spectacular opening ceremony at the historic Kallimarmaro or “beautifully marbled” stadium, the 45,000-seater venue that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The event, which runs until July 4th, sees 7,500 athletes from 183 countries competing in 22 sports.

Greek president Karolos Papoulias opened the games shortly before the lighting of the Olympic torch, styled the “flame of hope”, shortly after midnight.

In his address, Timothy Shriver, chairman and chief executive of Special Olympics and son of its founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, extended his thanks to the host country.

“Despite all the difficulties and challenges this country is facing, Greece did not fail us, and the athletes of Special Olympics will not fail Greece,” Dr Shriver said, before calling for a “dignity revolution where there’s no more us and them – and where there’s lots of ability and no disability”.

Although he was scheduled to make a speech at the ceremony, Greek prime minister George Papandreou was conspicuously absent from the opening event. At a stage rehearsal for the event on Saturday, spectators could be heard booing when his name was read out. But Greece’s economic difficulties were far from people’s minds at the ceremony, whose artistic programme drew heavily on Greek mythology and culture, including Hesiod’s Theogonyand Homer’s Odyssey.

A highlight at the opening event was a performance by Stevie Wonder, who among other hits sang a duet of That’s What Friends Are For with long-time Special Olympics supporter and recording artist Vanessa Williams, who co-hosted the show with Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis.

Sporting green jerseys, waving Tricolours and with some wearing leprechaun hats, the Irish supporters were among the most conspicuous in the stadium, with most taking their seats in the curve of the marble stadium.

The crowds in the green bloc jumped to their feet and erupted into loud cheers as the 126 members of Team Ireland – the 10th largest delegation present – entered the stadium 30 minutes into the parade of athletes.

Marching in with the jubilant Irish sportspeople were former international rugby player Keith Wood and Special Olympics organiser and presidential hopeful Mary Davis.

Among the banners held by Irish supporters was one for swimmer Fergal Gregory (12), from Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, who at 12 is the youngest on the Irish team. “I’d never thought I’d see him perform at an Olympics,” said Fergal’s proud mother Áine after he and his teammates paraded into the stadium, underlining that his participation in the games “has done his confidence a world of good”.

She noted his achievements had boosted awareness in the locality – where she says Fergal enjoys celebrity status – of what people with an intellectual disability can accomplish.

After the five-hour ceremony concluded, the members of the Irish team were keen to return to get some rest ahead of yesterday’s events, which mainly consisted of divisioning – a process in which athletes are separated into groups of similar sporting ability.

Along with other members of the table tennis team, Mary O’Brien, from Duncormick, Co Wexford, felt the ceremony was a bit long as they had to be up at 7am the next morning.

Michael Glynn, of Derrylahan, Co Roscommon, was unperturbed by the late hour. “We’ll do well tomorrow,” the basketballer said.

For Jonathan Deering, one of the four on the Irish badminton team, the opening ceremony was worth every minute. “It was all brilliant, but Stevie Wonder was the best,” the Wicklow man said.