Cheers for Irish athletes at Special Olympics opening

Competitors joined by John Treacy in LA stadium where he won 1984 Olympic silver

 

Ireland’s athletes received one of the loudest cheers of the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games on Saturday night as they marched into the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Irish team numbering 128, comprising 88 athletes and 40 coaches, was the 71st country to march into the famous arena, the only venue to have hosted two Olympic Games, in 1932 and 1984.

The competitors were joined by Hollywood actor Colin Farrell and former athlete John Treacy who was returning to the stadium where he won an Olympic silver medal in the marathon 31 years ago.

“Being back in the LA Coliseum brings back so many incredible memories and emotions,” said the Waterford man who competed at four Olympic games.

“To represent your country on the world stage is an incredible experience for all involved and I would like to congratulate all the athletes and their families.”

Mr Farrell held hands with two happy athletes as they walked into the stadium in front of 62,338 people.

“Meeting all of the athletes and walking out amongst the Irish team is such a great honour - let’s go Ireland! Let’s go world!” he said.

The team was also joined in the 177-country procession by Special Olympics ambassador Claudine Keane, wife of the LA-based Irish footballer Robbie Keane.

The Keanes were the faces of a publicity campaign that raised enough funds to send the 88 athletes to the nine-day games. Ms Keane described walking out with the athletes into the coliseum as a “real honour.”

Cheered on by dozens of Irish supporters spread out across the large coliseum, the Irish team was among 7,000 athletes gathered in the iconic arena for the star-studded opening ceremony.

The event featured performances by popstars Stevie Wonder and Nicole Scherzinger and appearances by actors Eva Longoria and Ed Harris, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and boxer Oscar de la Hoya.

US first lady Michelle Obama officially opened the games, calling them a “perfect reflection” of unity to bring people together.

“They show us that we are all in this together, that we can lift our friends and neighbours and we can bring out the best in each other to reach even higher heights,” she said.

The coliseum’s famous Olympic flag was illuminated in a breathtaking sound, dancing and fireworks show backed by music from popstar Avril Lavigne.

The loudest cheers of the night were reserved for the host country, the United States whose delegation of 491 is the biggest at the games.

A team of 155 volunteers from Ireland is one of the biggest groups to assist at the games from any country competing in LA.

“No other country has brought over so many volunteers,” said Philip McGauran of Greystones, Co Wicklow who along with five colleagues from Eircom is helping out at the games this week.

Team Ireland will participate in 13 sports including aquatics, athletics, badminton, basketball, golf, gymnastics and table tennis.

Irish ambassador to the US Anne Anderson attended the ceremony with Irish Consul General Philip Grant and Vice Consul Kevin Byrne who represent Ireland in the western United States.

Ms Anderson, who also attended the Ireland-Iceland football match on Saturday, told The Irish Times that she felt great pride and joy in seeing the Irish athletes in LA for the games.

“The pride is deeper because everyone knows the challenging journey that the athletes have travelled. Nothing has been handed to them on a plate; everything has been earned,” she said.

“It is their own grit and determination that has allowed them to scale Olympian heights. There has been so much sorrow after Berkeley; this is a moment that the sun shines through.”

More than 500,000 spectators are expected at the games, which last until Sunday. The event is the largest in LA since the 1984 Olympics.

“It is the biggest event in the world this year - it is absolutely fabulous,” said Michael Fahy from Co Mayo who was accompanying a thrilled Rita Quirke from Monasterevin, Co Laois, a competitor in kayaking and swimming events over the coming days.

In a video message, president Barack Obama paid tribute to Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of former president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, saying that no one could have imagined it would grow into one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions.

“You make an extraordinary contribution to your communities,” Mr Obama told the athletes. “Where some see limitation, you see opportunity. You represent the very best of the human experience.”

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