Special Olympics anniversary marked around Ireland

Supporters of 7,000 athletes celebrate achievements a decade after successful games

Catriona Kearney, (right) celebrates with fellow Ireland team members Laura Jane Dunne, Karina Houlihan and Brid Lynch in the 4x50 freestyle relay during the Special Olympics World Games in June 2003. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Catriona Kearney, (right) celebrates with fellow Ireland team members Laura Jane Dunne, Karina Houlihan and Brid Lynch in the 4x50 freestyle relay during the Special Olympics World Games in June 2003. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Sun, Jun 23, 2013, 08:37

MARK HILLIARD and OLIVIA KELLEHER

Ten years since Ireland hosted some 7,000 Special Olympians, anniversary events around the country have marked the legacy of an achievement that has forever changed how people view disability.

In Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast the memories of that run-away success were invoked with the help of a number of sporting and other stars, together with the athletes themselves and their families, each as anxious as the next to keep them alive.

“The excitement of 2003, you can even see it here in this crowd; people want to remember how wonderful it was,” said former Fine Gael minister and Special Olympics patron Nora Owen at today’s event in Dublin where miniature basketball and table tennis sessions occupied a portion of South King Street.

Jason Sherlock was on hand too, as was Today FM host Ian Dempsey.

The legacy issue is not just one of improved understanding, say those involved, but of a visible surge in activity since. There are now over 400 Special Olympics clubs around the country, catering for the enthusiasm of thousands.

“It’s what mattered after the games because before that a lot of people didn’t know what the Special Olympics was and how skilled people can be, even if they have some kind of disability,” said Ms Owen.

Ian Dempsey put it like this: “Twenty five years ago they would probably have been sitting in a corner being told they need special attention and being told they can’t do this.”

Around him, athletes demonstrated their skills and guided some fumbling, less able members of the public.

Shelagh Leech, whose gymnast daughter Tara was there in 2003 scooping up five medals, says the games have also helped how we treat those with special needs in the broader sense of community.

“You are inclined to forget in the hustle and bustle just how far we have all come,” she says, proudly confirming her now 31-year-old daughter’s status as a coach with the Tivoli Tigers club in Dublin.

She has also studied in DCU and Trinity, a further indication of how far things have come since, and to an extent because of that celebrated time in Croke Park.

“People never saw them (before). They weren’t recognised,” said Ms Leech.

“When I think that Tara went to university; I remember days when I was crying outside kindergarten trying to get her in. Now you don’t have to explain to a school what a student with a disability is.”

In Galway, the county hurling manager Anthony Cunningham and Connacht rugby player George Naoupu captained took part in basketball and football competitions with various special needs clubs from the region.

Then there was Cork where Munster rugby player Billy Holland and Cork GAA football manager Conor Counihan were amongst the stars taking part in penalty shootouts.

Dave Mulcahy, coach of the Gunners club in Ballincollig, said the Special Olympics movement received a massive boost in the years that followed Ireland’s hosting duties of 2003.

“More volunteers got involved after 2003. People became more aware of the Special Olympics and it was very encouraging for the parents,” he said.

“The players I have here today range in age from 18 to 30 and they have varying abilities. In our club in Ballincollig we have about fifty players overall. We have training sessions every week and there is great camaraderie.”

Eilish Harrington, Special Olympics Munster regional development officer, said the event ten years ago “was the first time it was held outside of America so it was special.

“We have a lot of volunteers involved on the back of 2003. The amount of athletes has increased and a lot of clubs have been set up since.”