Joanne O’Riordan: Special group of people show sport is for everyone

Team Ireland’s success at the Special Olympics gives rise to tears of joy and pride

A rich haul. Some 30 gold, 29 silver and 27 bronze medals but altogether over 90 heroes. This year was one of Ireland’s most successful appearances in the Special Olympics and one that will live on in the memory of those involved for many years to come.

The Special Olympics has become a massive part of many people’s lives and it is an organisation, and a sports-led group, that refuses to focus on a person’s disability. Instead it focuses on a person’s ability and ensures an athlete is not defined by what he or she cannot do.

Back in 2003, I can remember when the Special Olympics came to Ireland and was a massive cause for celebration. One beautiful day I remember an athlete coming back to the hotel on Lansdowne Road with a medal and being warmly embraced by their family. Tears of joy, immense pride and more importantly, a sense of achievement that made all the struggles, sweat and tears worthwhile.

Sixteen years later and those same feelings reoccur when seeing the happy faces, jubilation and shining medals around the necks of the worthy winners. Just a few weeks ago I was invited to launch an event with Special Olympics Munster. In all honesty, I was bowled over with the excitement, hype and anticipation from those in attendance.


I asked how many of the athletes who were at the launch were heading to the world’s games. Although few raised their hands, the sheer excitement from the rest of the athletes made me leave that day with a smile on my face.

It did not matter how many were going on to compete for Ireland, what mattered was that they were all there to support, mentor and help one another in their respective sports.

At a time where we see competitiveness in athletes reach insane heights, it was refreshing to see such a level of camaraderie. Although athlete was an individual, it was the core values of the team that mattered most.

The beauty of social media is that we now get to see the videos, pictures and share news about events we would never really hear from in the mainstream media world.

During the week, social media was brimming with proud athletes, coaches, mentors and parents. Irish football, amid a turbulent week, had new champions etched into the history books, as Waterford native Willie McGrath rose like a salmon to score the last-minute winner against Estonia which earned bronze.

Personal highlight

Sure, Italia 90 was one of Ireland’s most significant ever sporting achievements, but the boys returning home with bronze from Abu Dhabi is as momentous as an occasion as anything else. Passion, hunger and desire are the traits of any good team, and the bronze medallists certainly showed their mettle to beat Estonia.

A personal highlight for me was watching the golfers clean up. Videos appeared on everyone’s timeline of Mark Claffey’s reaction to winning the gold medal. The anticipation and tension was unreal as the officials calculated the final score and sure enough Claffey had done enough to secure the top spot.

And don't forget about the older athletes either. Clare's Maireád Moroney, who will turn 70 in May, took the solid advice from Ryder Cup captain Pádraig Harrington and secured her and her alternate stroke partner Jean Molony a silver medal.

While Maireád was dazzling everyone with her new tan, she now had the silver medal on show to complement her new colour. Team Ireland Golf alone secured four medals after an unbelievable day on the fairways, and a new Lowry became a superstar . . . not Shane, but Simon who secured top prize also.

All in all, a really successful year for those competing for Team Ireland in the Special Olympics.

As athletes were lining up on the podium and receiving warm welcomes from families, peers, friends and supporters, this year proved once again we should not focus on the disability, rather than the ability.

Special Olympics has long blazed a trail for athletes living with a disability. Sport is something that is loved and renowned all over the world, yet a growing number of people with disabilities don’t participate. Not only is it because of the lack of local clubs but it is also bizarre that very few clubs for “normal” people don’t integrate those with other needs. This is a worrying barrier that needs to be broken down.

Hopefully, with the increased coverage that the Special Olympics gets, it encourages more and more people to take up a new sport and break down the barriers into sport for people with disability. Sport is for everyone and accessibility is something that needs to be addressed. For now, let us all soak up the smiles, pride and joy at what our athletes have accomplished and look forward to another generation or trailblazers for years to come.