Quietly heading for victory
The 19th World Deaf Games, or Deaflympics, come to a celebratory end in Rome tomorrow afternoon. The Irish squad, which brings home a respectable cache of medals, had been training for three years. They'd been worried about the heat and, speaking before they flew to Rome, said they were nervous wrecks. In the end, the soccer team has come first in its group and the swimmers have won several medals.
Their triumphs come in an atmosphere of sadness, however, as Sean Kelly, the president of the Irish Deaf Sports Association, died during the Games. In an interview before they left for the Games, he and two of the squad talked of how, for deaf athletes in Ireland, there was more than athletic nerves to worry about.
Kelly and the footballers Geoffrey McCormack and Philip Querney communicated using sign language, while I was helped by a sign interpreter.
With most people blithely unaware that the Deaflympics are taking place, they agreed that there was, for some athletes, the niggling question: "What am I doing all this for?"
Given the fact that, like their sporting colleagues, they had to raise their own funds to travel, that for most their families cannot afford to be there to see them compete and that their achievements often go largely unrecognised, they did, said Querney, sometimes wonder if they could sustain the effort.
"You begin to feel that what you're doing is not important," he said. "But I'm really looking forward to competing. It will be a great challenge and good fun."
Some 20 athletes from the Republic and Northern Ireland are taking part in the swimming and soccer events, and Kelly said he was "very hopeful" of bringing home a good number of medals. He was a founder member of the Irish Deaf Sports Association in 1968.
Speaking from Rome last week, his son Damian explained that Kelly had been a great soccer player in his younger days. "They originally founded the IDSA because there was no way deaf athletes or clubs could compete at international level with other deaf teams, unless there was a national body."
There was also the fact, as Kelly explained earlier this month, that there was nobody encouraging or facilitating deaf people who wanted to continue taking part in sports after they left school. Apart from the IDSA, this remains largely the case.
Ireland began participating at the Deaflympics in 1973, at the Games in Malm÷, Sweden. The Deaflympics were founded in 1924, when just eight countries took part, in Paris. They have been held every four years since 1953, and some 75 countries and 5,000 athletes are taking part in the 2001 Games. The Games are recognised by the International Olympic Committee, and in Ireland's time at them some 12 gold, eight silver and five bronze medals have come home.
Among the Irish deaf soccer team are two athletes who also play on professional hearing teams. Joe Watson, who plays for the First Division team Waterford United, and Richard Dougherty, of Lisburn Distillery, lined out for the Irish team's first match, against the Ukraine.
They drew 1-1, then beat Malaysia 7-1 and, in a game they had been worried about, beat Denmark 2-1. In the first round they came top of their group on goal difference.
In the swimming events, Kelly expressed great hopes for the two Irish swimmers: Alan Turner, a coach for the Aer Lingus swimming team, and David McIlroy, a student at Queen's University Belfast, who were "brilliant", he said. "Four years ago, we had competitors in basketball, badminton, running table tennis, but now it has all got smaller. We try to encourage young deaf people to participate in sports, but you can't force them to."
Fewer were taking part in sports, he said, due to a combination of factors, including the fact that there were more outlets than there used to be for young deaf people and that they had more money for other pursuits.
Later, however, the three spoke about the lack of money invested in coaching facilities for deaf people once they had left school, and about the barriers to deaf people's joining athletic or other clubs.
Kelly said he "dearly hoped" more deaf athletes might be around for the 2005 Deaflympics, in Melbourne.
'We want to keep Ireland on the map," he said. "But funding is very difficult. We get a grant, of about £30,000 from the Irish Sports Council, but we get nothing from the Irish Olympic Council, and though I have written to many, many businesses hoping to get sponsorship, the response has been very disappointing."
Unless the Games got better coverage, commercial sponsorship would remain difficult to come by, he said.
"Our tracksuits are old stock from Umbro," said Querney, showing me the navy-blue gear. Bertcraft Precision Engineering, in Clondalkin, paid to have them customised with the IDSA logo.
Describing the time, energy and love his father put into the IDSA, Damian Kelly said it had "been very, very important to him that the efforts of deaf athletes were encouraged and recognised."
He compared the lack of encouragement his father got with the relative wealth of other teams.
"The German team, for instance, have cars donated and haven't had to pay a penny to fly over. In Ireland, it's all an extension of the Jamie Sinnott case. Once a disability is involved, people turn away."
The trip to Rome cost the IDSA £70,000, most of which was raised by the athletes and the , Kelly spoke of how deaf athletes were often as good as hearing athletes.
Asked whether there might ever be a time when there would be no need for an IDSA, when deaf athletes would be facilitated to the point at which they could compete alongside their hearing colleagues, he shook his head.
"There will always be the Deaflympics," he said. Querney and McCormack nodded in agreement.
"It's important for the deaf world," said Querney.
"There's a great bond and camaraderie. If there were no Deaf Games we would lose that." Sean Kelly was buried at the weekend in Dublin.