The Special Olympics demolished our prejudices and perceptions of disability

Spirit of those heady summer days lives on


On a sultry June evening just over a decade ago, the Special Olympics “flame of hope” was extinguished at a closing ceremony in Croke Park.

But the spirit of those heady summer days didn’t die away. The event proved an extraordinary catalyst, swelling the ranks of athletes and creating one of the largest voluntary organisations. It has helped challenge many perceptions – and prejudices – about people with intellectual disabilities.

“The World Games were great for hype, excitement and profile,” recalls Frances Kavanagh, director of sport for Special Olympics Ireland.

“But its real impact was the long-term growth and development for people with intellectual disabilities. From volunteers, we keep hearing that you get back far more than you give. Yes, it can be long hours and hard work. But it’s so rewarding to see athletes respond to training and grow in confidence.”

Over the past 10 years, Special Olympics Ireland has added 5,500 new athletes. The number of clubs has doubled to 400. It has expanded to cater for women’s football, pitch and putt, badminton and kayaking.

Huge participation
Internationally, an average of 2.5 per cent of people with intellectual disabilities are involved with the Special Olympics movement in way. In Ireland, the figure is 33 per cent.

One of the most dramatic changes has been the increase in people giving their time for free to coach, organise or encourage athletes.

In the year before the Special Olympics World Games in 2003, there were about 2,000 volunteers. Today, Ireland has some 25,000 volunteers, making it one of the largest voluntary organisations.

It’s a big contrast to the late 1970s, when the organisation started out with a handful of volunteers and participants. The first major event was held a year later in Gormanston College with 200 participants.

Mind-boggling origins
The idea of a global festival being launched in a jam-packed Croke Park featuring U2, Nelson Mandela and thousands of athletes from around the world would have been mind-boggling at the time.

Sporting activities were confined to those attending institutions run by large voluntary organisations like the Daughters of Charity. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first clubs were established.

“Our ambition was that we wanted to be able to have a club near to anyone with an intellectual disability who wanted to be involved in sport,” says Kavanagh. “There are hundreds of clubs now.”

One of the most powerful aspects of the movement is its ability to demolish prejudice. How people with intellectual disabilities are viewed has changed in the wider community – but it has also changed within the organisation itself.

The notion, says Kavanagh, that a group of athletes would head to far-off Asia to take part in games was unimaginable. Yet, that’s what a group just did for the most recent Winter Games in Korea. Through leadership programmes, she says, athletes have flourished by developing personal skills and working with mentors.

“At a recent event, there was a lad in his 30s. He’d just done some training. At the end of the event, all the athletes had to get up and say a few words. His mother said: ‘He’ll never get up and speak – he doesn’t do that.’ And then he got up and spoke to the crowd. She was blown away – even she saw him in a different light.”

The games also left a political legacy. Bertie Ahern, the then taoiseach, was booed at the opening ceremony. Many services across the State were being cut, even though the coffers were awash with money.

It was hardly a coincidence the following budget included a €900 million package to provide thousands of places in day, respite and residential services for people with disabilities. Ministers pledged that rights-based legislation for people with disabilities would follow.

Some legislation providing to the right to assessments for children with disabilities did eventually emerge, though there was no guaranteed access to services to meet their needs.

Today, services have improved. But cuts threaten to unravel supports. In recent weeks, it emerged health authorities were offering people with disabilities beds in institutions such as nursing homes, despite official policies which promote independent or supportive living.

But perhaps the Games’ most enduring legacy was more profound. The events that summer 10 years ago helped challenge many of our perceptions.

Limitless potential
No longer did much of society regard those with life-limiting conditions as victims – they were individuals with limitless potential. No longer were they regarded as objects of pity – they were competitors with a powerful story to tell about dignity and endeavour in the face of overwhelming odds.

This, after all, was a country where those with disabilities were largely invisible, often treated as ineducable, and where families learned the price to pay for acceptance was silence. The flame of hope seemed to burn on in the hearts of everyone who was moved, touched or humbled by the 2003 Special Olympics.

The words of Rita Lawlor, a former Special Olympics athlete, rang loudly at the opening ceremony. “We ask people to focus on our ability, not on our disabilities. We have many talents, you know. We never stop trying. We know how to win. We know how to have a party. So, let’s have a party.”