Everything about Sonia O'Sullivan presenting Mary Davis with the outstanding contribution to women's sport award was entirely fitting. For O'Sullivan, success was achieved on the sporting stage;: only what goes on behind that stage is often just as important.
It's also become one of the special moments of The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year awards. O'Sullivan acknowledged that sporting achievement does come in many guises, and for the best of her life, Davis has dedicated herself to bettering the lives of children and adults with intellectual disabilities through the medium of sport.
Last year, Davis was appointed chief executive officer of Special Olympics International, based in Washington DC – the first CEO from outside the US in the organisation's nearly 50-year history.
“An outstanding contribution to sport isn’t always about success on the track or field of play, or under the spotlight of the any sporting arena,” said O’Sullivan. “Not every champion of sport needs to run fast times or score winning goals.
“It can be as much about sporting administration and organisation, with that the same level of dedication, and likewise providing the inspiration and motivation for others.
“There are no medals or records. And they very often are the ‘unsung heroes’ of sport, those who have dedicated their lives to sport behind the scenes, who and don’t always get the same recognition as those we see on TV or read about in the papers.
"And now for reaching the highest mountain of Special Olympics sport, I'm honoured and delighted to present Mary Davis with The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Outstanding Contribution to Women's Sport Award."
Davis has credited her upbringing in rural Mayo – where “there was always a prevailing attitude of looking after your neighbour, of taking care of each other” for sowing the seeds of this success.
After studying to become a PE Teacher in England, she returning to Ireland, she became PE co-ordinator with St Michael’s House in Ballymun, Dublin, an organisation catering for people with intellectual disabilities.
It was there she first volunteered for Special Olympics Ireland. By 1989, she was appointed National Director of Special Olympics Ireland. She was then one of the main driving forces behind Ireland’s successful bid to host the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games – the first time in 35 years that the World Summer Games were ever held outside of North America.
“It’s about what happens in communities every single day of the week, around the country and around the world,” Davis said of her work.
“And this award, which I’m more grateful for, is testament to that community in Ireland. It’s the people in Ireland that made Special Olympics Ireland what it is today. I was fortunate to serve a number of roles within the organisation, but it was the people, the 24,000 volunteers that Special Olympics Ireland has today, and they can all take the praise and acknowledgement, over 140 clubs in Ireland at this stage.
“I’d also like to thank Sport Ireland, John Treacy and Kieran Mulvey and all the board, for what they’ve done to develop sport and to ensure it is inclusive and not just sport at elite level.
“Next year, the Special Olympics International turns 50: And it’s not just about celebrating the last 50 years, but looking to the future, reaching out to young people, and emphasising the importance of people, young people, starting off from two-year-olds, and working right up, understanding difference in that there really is no difference, and everybody should be treated equally, in the same way, and Special Olympics is very much going to be promoting that through a unified programme that we have, for people with or without intellectual ability, can play together on the same playing field. Because sport is such a powerhouse, so, so powerful, in bringing people together, and understanding that there is no difference.”
After being appointed CEO of the 2003 Games Organising Committee, Davis set about organising an event which involved participation by 165 countries, 32,000 volunteers and 10,000 athletes and coaches, and it proved a resounding success. Not forgetting the 177 host towns, cities and villages around the country.
Her achievement in organising that event earned her the Irish Person of the Year award in 2003. She then became managing director of the Special Olympics Europe, before in May of last year taking over the global role.
This is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to 5.7 million athletes in some 172 affiliated countries.
She’s kept busy on her own sporting front too: she ran the New York Marathon in November 2005, raising €80,000 for Special Olympics in the process. Before that, she achieved the ambition of a lifetime when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, with her husband Julian. She’s also been to the top of Mont Blanc.