A celebration of ability at the Special Olympics Ireland Games

Up to 1,600 athletes, all of whom have intellectual disabilities, will compete in a range of sports

Gynmast Patrick Quinlivan from Letterkenny, Co Donegal with his haul of medals during the homecoming after the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Gynmast Patrick Quinlivan from Letterkenny, Co Donegal with his haul of medals during the homecoming after the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

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Up to 1,600 athletes, their coaches and supporters will be in Tallaght Stadium, Dublin on Thursday, June 14th, for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics Ireland Games.

Once the “Flame of Hope” is lit, the participants will then compete in 14 sports, most of which are on at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown, Dublin, from Friday to Sunday (June 15th-17th).

“It’s a big deal for all of those who have qualified to compete, following local and regional events over the last two years,” explains Cait Donnelly from Special Olympics Ireland.

The athletes, all of whom have intellectual disabilities, will compete in basketball, bocce, badminton, table tennis, swimming, gymnastics, running, kayaking, horse-riding, golf, pitch-and-putt and bowling. There is also a motor activities competition for those with severe to profound disabilities.

Cyril Walker from Markethill, Co Armagh, with Special Olympics Ireland CEO Mat English after Team Ireland athletes and supporters returned from the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cyril Walker from Markethill, Co Armagh, with Special Olympics Ireland CEO Mat English after Team Ireland athletes and supporters returned from the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

“Competitors are divided up according to their ability and the ethos is all about taking part and competing fairly. Really, it’s a celebration of ability,” says Donnelly. Up to 2,500 volunteers are on hand to judge competitions, signpost athletes to different events and provide catering, entertainment, transportation and medical back-up. The winners of competitions at the Special Olympics Ireland Games will go on to compete in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

As well as the excitement and team spirit of the competitions at the National Sports Campus over the weekend, there is a free healthy athletes’ programme which offers health screenings and checks.

Podiatrists will assess athletes’ feet and offer advice on shoes, socks and feet and nail care. Occupational therapists, physiotherapists and physical therapists will check athletes’ flexibility, aerobic capacity, strength and balance.

Coping strategies

Dentists, dental hygienists and dental nurses will check teeth and demonstrate correct brushing techniques. Opthalmologists will check eyes and any athlete in need of new prescription glasses or goggles will be given them at the end of the event. Audiologists will assess hearing and make appointments for follow-up care in local health centres. And, for the first time this year, there will be advice on positive coping strategies for stress and anxiety.

“Some of our athletes do get stressed with noise levels or different environments so we’ll talk about ways of coping such as doing breathing exercises, talking to someone about how you feel, listening to music,” explains Donnelly. There will also be Tai chi classes as well as talks about healthy eating and sun safety.

Third-level students in the various healthcare disciples will work alongside health professionals. This gives these students a unique learning opportunity to understand the specific needs of athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Athletes at the Special Olympics Ireland Team Eastern Launch at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The Special Olympics Ireland Team Eastern Launch at the National Sports Campus in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photograph: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

The healthy athletes programme is a long-standing feature of the Special Olympics World Games. At these international events, athletes coming from countries with less developed healthcare systems are also offered full medical check-ups.

Eamonn Quirke, a coach with the Special Olympics golf team from the Leinster region, says the social and health benefits of participation are equal to the competitive and sports training. “The athletes train together each month and form friendships with fellow athletes and coaches that go beyond the competitions. There are also important health benefits to competing which help contain and manage obesity among some athletes.”

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