Father and son have Special Olympics memories they wouldn’t swap for gold

‘We tried so hard and didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter’

Ten years ago today, father and son Jim and James Kelly marched into Croke Park stadium with Team Ireland for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games. By the time the games ended, James had a silver medal, Jim had memories he wouldn't swap for gold and their lives had changed forever.

Sitting in the sunny garden outside the Old Beehive Restaurant in Palmerstown where James works, the pair from Ballinteer are both committed to Special Olympics.

James (30) who has Down syndrome, is involved in table tennis, athletics, golf and basketball with the Blackrock Flyers. His dad is a table tennis coach and also volunteers for other duties.

Tough training
Ten years ago basketball was James's only focus and it remains his favourite sport. He came through heats at local level to qualify for the World Games. He recalls how the team trained very hard in the Tallaght basketball arena and then stayed as a group in the host village of Leixlip.

At the opening ceremony in Croke Park he entered the stadium “very happy and excited”. Arnold Schwarzenegger impressed him as did U2, Roy Keane and Brian Kerr – “a really good chap”.


He is happy to name-drop as he lists the famous people he saw, but emphasises he was most impressed by rugby players Keith Gleeson and Victor Costello. Jim shows me an autographed photo of the players with James. “The best rugby stars,” James says.

He says he learned a lot from his 2003 experience, including listening to his coach and remembering the importance of training and practising.

He also enjoyed the companionship of his teammates and making friends with people from other countries. He even had friends on the “very talented” Pakistan team, which beat Ireland in the final. “We tried so hard and didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter. The best team won and we accepted it,” he says.

Jim explains how their commitment to the Special Olympics began in the November before the World Games. They were both involved in monthly training at different locations and were accommodated in different host towns.

“2003 was the big one for me personally and for James; we couldn’t fathom it until we experienced it.”

The opening ceremony was "a tremendously emotional time", he says, and the coaches had to calm the hype and prepare participants in the build-up to it.

'They have come'
The streets were quiet as the bus approached Croke Park for the ceremony, he recalls. A lone voice at the back asked where everyone was and remarked that "nobody's coming". Then when they got to Summerhill they saw all the people gathered and the voice said "they have come". The crowd began to cheer when they saw the Irish buses. "It was very emotional."

Jim says his son learned a lot about comradeship at the games and how to support his team mates. “He’s delighted when someone else scores; that’s a big learning curve.”

He also sees how independent James has become. He makes his own way to work on public transport from Ballinteer, thanks to his confidence and to the help of the Dublin Bus travel assistance trainer.

The discipline involved in training has helped him at work too and James now has a busy and full life, with work, sports and social commitments.

"He's a very astute character, a clever, astute young man. We're all very proud of him and he's been an influence on us all."

As a coach, Jim says he also learned a lot from the experience of the games, including the art of patience and the importance of repetition.

These days, father and son are both busy with training and though they may have half an eye on the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles in 2015, neither are too caught up about winning.

James proudly shows his 2003 medal mounted in a wooden frame. The silver catches the morning sunlight. “It changed my life,” he says.

“The fact is we’re not losers, we are winners. We are all friends here; that’s the one thing that changes lives.”

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist