Minister pays tribute to dedication of athletes


“THERE ARE just 104 days to go,” Greece’s ambassador to Ireland said as the athletes cheered in applause.

“You are Ireland’s heroes,” Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar said and they cheered even louder.

An outpouring of enthusiasm enlivened the launch of the Special Olympics Ireland team of 126 athletes, 49 coaches and 220 volunteers who will attend the World Games in Athens from June 25th to July 4th.

The athletes, their families, coaches, supporters and Special Olympics Ireland volunteers gathered at the Convention Centre Dublin for the occasion to mark the largest sporting event in the world this year.

The birthplace of the Olympics will host 7,500 Special Olympics athletes, with 2,500 coaches and thousands of volunteers from 185 countries. This year the 126 Irish athletes will participate in 12 sports, including for the first time kayaking.

One of the kayakers, Shaun Bradley, from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, when asked if it was a dangerous sport, quipped, to much laughter: “Not really if you’re good at swimming.”

Greece’s ambassador to Ireland Constantina Zagorianou-Prifti paid tribute to the athletes for “their struggle for respect, for their struggle for self-esteem and for their struggle to defend their special abilities”.

Mr Varadkar at his first official function as a Cabinet member, said everyone could benefit from Special Olympics Ireland. The Government has allocated €250,000 for the World Games and €1.5 million in 2011 for Special Olympics Ireland.

He said when the country was so “gloomy” all the time, “we’ve a lot to learn from your enthusiasm and positivity and I will bring it back to Government”.

He paid tribute to the volunteers “who give up your personal and social lives and in many cases your careers” to assist Special Olympics Ireland.

“On behalf of the Irish Government I want to recognise that” and “ask you to continue that”.

Chairwoman of Special Olympics Ireland and regional president for Europe and Asia, Mary Davis, praised those who had helped the organisation since it started in Ireland more than 25 years ago. Ms Davis, the driving force behind the world games in Ireland in 2003, said the Irish organisation now had 24,000 volunteers compared to 50 or 100 at its founding. She said that “26 to 27 years ago we had the courage to dream and today we see the achievements”.

A video was shown of famous sports people, TV and film celebrities wishing the athletes well. Sports personalities including former snooker champion Denis Taylor, former Ireland goalkeeper Packie Bonner, golfers Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy, former cycling champion Seán Kelly, boxing stars Katie Taylor and Bernard Dunne, got the best response. Former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan also got a loud cheer.

But the standing ovation from the 126 athletes and an audience of about 500 came when Deputy Garda Commissioner Nacie Rice and Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI Duncan McCausland carried the “flame of hope” between them onto the stage, where Special Olympics bowler Jonathon Griffin from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, joined them in holding it aloft.