Volunteers were an unstoppable army of energy

Games tore down barriers that once divided Irish society


The media focus on Nelson Mandela has reminded me of the enormous effort displayed by so many people to make the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games such a wonderful success. On a sunny June evening in Croke Park 10 years ago, Nelson Mandela joined many others to unite the island of Ireland in a truly unique way.

It was four years earlier, in 1999, that Ireland was given the honour of hosting the 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games. With the honour came an enormous amount of organisation, planning, training. I do not believe that volunteerism in Ireland ever reached such inspiring heights in my lifetime before, or since.

The statistics were staggering – Ireland was to open its doors to athletes from over 160 countries, together with family members and organisers of each one of the visiting nations. It was a mammoth task given to Mary Davis and her team. The entire event could not have happened without the extraordinary team that came on board to give their time and energy.

Exceptional talents
I was asked to become chairman of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games by the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, shortly after the Games were awarded to Ireland. We assembled a board of leading individuals whose exceptional talents for raising funds, sports management and logistics would make a unique contribution to the creation of what became a historical snapshot of national pride.

One of the stand-out experiences was the level of co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, under the leadership of Peter Fitzgerald and Duncan McCausland. They oversaw the hugely successful torch run from Athens to Belfast and then all over the country, ending up in Croke Park. The Special Olympics was to be the most visible display of harmony, on this island of ours, after an all too difficult and troubled past.

Over 30,000 volunteers from all traditions joined us. They, along with 177 host towns across the country, generated an unstoppable army of energy. Clearly, sponsorship and fundraising, which eventually totalled €63 million, played a pivotal role in the success of the Games. While human endeavour was the engine driver, there was a considerable cost element and corporate Ireland displayed tremendous generosity. A particularly important boost came in the form of €6 million in EU funding which was secured by the drive and determination of MEP Brian Crowley and Pádraig Ó hUiginn, former secretary general at the Department of the Taoiseach.

And the roles played by the government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the EU, while low-key, were extremely effective in ensuring the national and international linkages worked seamlessly. In particular, the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, was exceptionally generous with his time and energy to attend important events in the build up to the Games.

Undoubted success
But I really believe that the three Es ensured the undoubted success of the Games – enthusiasm, energy and emotion. And these traits were more evident in one group than in any other – the athletes themselves. On the opening night, I quoted Rita Lawlor, my fellow Games director: “Before Special Olympics I was too shy to speak out loud. But now I am not afraid. We are not children, we are adults. We have opinions and we should be listened to.”

The athletes touched our lives. Their will to succeed, their courage and their unbridled enthusiasm for life were truly infectious. The barriers that once divided Irish society were torn down by what was not an event or an occasion, but a movement.

Our wish had been that the Olympic torch would ignite a new beginning where men and women with a learning disability would take their place as citizens of the world with the opportunity of working alongside all others who enjoy the rights and responsibilities of being fully integrated citizens.

Statistics do not ever tell the full story but they do help to give a valuable insight. Since 2003 Special Olympics has gained more than 5,500 new athletes. It has doubled the number of clubs to 400 and the number of volunteers has soared from 2,000 to 25,000.

The Special Olympics World Summer Games a decade ago were truly special.

lDenis O’Brien is chairman of Communicorp and was chairman of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games.