Special Olympics opening ceremony has real Irish feel to it – now the games begin

Bouncing into Zayed Sports City Stadium and with smiles beaming brighter than the Olympic torch, Team Ireland finally arrived back on the world stage in Abu Dhabi.

It took the guts of an hour before the Irish name was called out and the team in green made their way out of the tunnel where they would join 7,000 other Special Olympics athletes also witnessing their dreams come true.

From nations such as Kiribati and Guyana with only five and six athletes to the hundreds representing the juggernauts of the USA, India and Germany, the cultural mix of the event was there for all to see, with almost 200 nations represented in total.

And yet it still felt that with 91 athletes – much fewer than some – and St Patrick’s Day coming up, this tournament was more Irish than it’s been since Croke Park in 2003.

One of the catalysts of Ireland hosting the Games that year was Mary Davis – and the Mayo woman is now CEO of Special Olympics worldwide.

Contributing front and centre at the ceremony was athlete official Philomena O’Hare (46), from Navan, Co Meath – who after more than 20 years involved in the Special Olympics was chosen to read out the athlete officials’ oath.

Though describing the opening ceremony as “fabulous” the whole movement means so much more.

It’s about “making new friends, and helping out other people, I’m a volunteer now, I’m not an athlete any more”.

Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver – a nephew of John F Kennedy – told athletes to think of those who weren’t there with them.

Speaking at the opening ceremony – 10 years since his mother Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics, passed away – Mr Shriver said: “I think they’re all here, the founders of this great nation are here, I think my mother is here.”

Mr Shriver also thanked Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed for “sending a message to the entire world that now is the time for tolerance”.

Parents and friends have already commended the conditions and facilities available to the athletes in the UAE, with Pam Beacon, mother of open-water swimmer Aisling (39), saying they are all treated like royalty.

Aisling got involved initially in 2003 and was responsible for setting up a Special Olympics club in Wicklow, was on the board of the eastern region and even spoke in the UN.

“She’s great, she’s getting a bit older now but she thinks she’s the champion and that’s the important thing, and she’s having a ball,” Ms Beacon said. “She’s swimming on Saturday, 10am in the sea.

“And if she wasn’t selected this year I still would’ve brought her because she loves it, it’s her life.”

Meanwhile, two recent UAE representatives in the Rose of Tralee were on hand to lend their support.

Clare woman Niamh Kelly, the 2017 Abu Dhabi Rose, and current Dubai Rose Rebecca Egan, from Offaly, helped host some lip-sync battle nights to drum up support for Special Olympics athletes.

Although Team Ireland is small in terms of athlete numbers, when combined with the tally of volunteers and family members, Ireland appears to have one of the biggest representations.

“It’s fabulous that it all ties in together, it’s Paddy’s weekend, this is on and we’ve so many different activities planned throughout the week, after hours for the volunteers as well,” said Ms Kelly.

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