Sponsored content is premium paid-for content produced by the Irish Times Content Studio on behalf of commercial clients. The Irish Times newsroom or other editorial departments are not involved in the production of sponsored content.

Thumbs up for Ireland’s Deaflympians

Despite limited funding and a relatively low profile, Ireland is sending 24 athletes to this summer’s 22nd Deaflympics in Bulgaria, writes Orla Tinsley

Joseph Watson from Waterford has been a top Irish footballer since he was 19 and will compete in his fourth Deaflympics for Ireland in Bulgaria this summer.

On the pitch in Sofia flags will be waved to signal play instead of whistles blown. At the starting line on the athletics track, replacing the blast of a gun the flash of a light will signal Go as the 22nd Deaflympics gets under way.

Previously called the World Games for the Deaf, the four-yearly event for athletes who are deaf has been running since 1924 and despite being less well known or publicised compared to the Paralympics and Special Olympics, the games are the second longest-running International Olympic Council-accredited event after the main Olympics.

This year Ireland will send a team of 24 athletes to compete in badminton and football.


Watson, 31, who plays for the Irish football team and a separate hearing team, says there are two main differences between playing football for a deaf team and a hearing team.

“When it comes to movement with hearing people it’s easier but with deaf people it’s more visual because you’re using your eyes all the time, so you have to accept there’s a difference.”

The majority of the Irish football team have grown up together, attending Ireland’s only school for the deaf which has helped solidify their success.

“It’s based on bonds we’ve had after years of going to school together and working hard. You look at the manager and we look at each other when you’re playing, it’s visual intuition,” he says.

Ireland as a team has earned 16 gold medals, 16 silver medals and 11 bronze medals in football and swimming since they first competed in Sweden in 1973 and it will cost the team €75,000 to travel to the Olympics. While there are some funds, the athletes currently receive no high performance funding and recently held a run in the Phoenix Park to raise money for the trip.

Watson, who has won two bronze medals for Ireland and 50 caps in 60 games, says the financial barriers to attending the Deaflympics are frustrating. “It’s embarrassing to have to ask my local community to help out all the time,” he says.

Some 1,500 deaf people attend mainstream school in Ireland and the team feels there is a lack of awareness about deaf sports and a lack of understanding about the unique communication methods requireds to train in a sport at elite level while deaf.

“There was a young guy in Waterford who is deaf and I told him he could play for the Irish team because he’s under the decibel and so good,” says Watson, “but he thought he couldn’t because he’s only a little bit deaf and can’t sign. But you don’t need to be able to sign.”

Bray native and Deaflympic qualifier Aidan Connor, whose cousin is former Irish Olympic swimmer Gary O’Toole, says there is a misconception about the sport which is both physically and mentally demanding.

The confusion over the many Olympic games frustrates him. “A lot of people in the hearing community say, ‘Oh, are you involved in the Special Olympics?’ and I tell them it’s not the same thing. We need to show people we are on the same level and prove we can do it.” he says.

As there is no sound to guide athletes, crowds waving and giving the thumbs up are customary displays of support. Hearing aids are strictly forbidden for all athletes, which suits Connor, who takes his out to focus while training.

“I wish hearing people would understand my way but the badminton does all the talking. The number one thing is to follow the shuttle and feel the game,” he says.

Irish team badminton player Shane Keogh went to mainstream school and never learned to sign despite being deaf.

“I only came into the deaf world in 1998 because of sports and it was difficult to cross over,” he said.

Keogh, who trains three times a week, was apprehensive about the climate. “I was never embarrased of being deaf and when I first joined the deaf squad in 1998 it was a different sporting experience. Sport has made me more open and more patient.”

The NUI Maynooth engineering student has been playing since he was seven. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment and an honour to play for my country,” he says.

Fellow Irish badminton player Johnny Corcoran is the only member of the team who was not born deaf. Meningitis at age two and a half affected the photographer’s hearing. His three-year-old son keeps him training hard in between his job as a photographer. “I’m dong this all for my son. He’s three and already beating me at badminton,” says Corcoran.

Some 5,000 athletes will pour into Sofia for the event from July 26th to August 4th in the Arrmets arena in front of 14,000 spectators. The marathon will take place in Germany on July 21st.

Deaf Sports Ireland receives core funding from the Irish Sports Council but €45,000 more is needed to compete at international level, says administrator Paul Ryder. "It's difficult to get sponsorship and we want to do the best we can at the games because we have a long tradition of winning medals."