“Let me win- But if I cannot, let me be brave in the attempt”. This was the motto repeated by 1,500 athletes throughout Limerick between 12 – 15th June at the national finals of Special Olympics Ireland.
From the moment our family of seven arrived in a sun-drenched Limerick on 12th, there was a palpable air of excitement around thecity. Everyone knew the games were happening and the people of Limerick came out in their droves to welcome the thousands of visitors to the city. Streets were cordoned off as the athletes’ parade made its way to the aptly named People’s Park. Already the work of the volunteers was greatly in evidence. The first thing that struck me on entering the park was the variety of colour. Navy and white for Leinster, lighter blue for Ireland East, red and black for Munster, green and black for Connaught, and black and gold for Ulster—the four provinces of Ireland proudly represented by the lucky 1500 athletes who qualified for the national finals. Volunteers, too, sported an array of tee shirts, each colour representing the different areas in which they would volunteer for the weekend.
For the 1500 fortunate athletes, there were thousands more at home who were equally proud of their friends who had qualified. Many of them also travelled to Limerick to share in the excitement of the games.
The excitement and air of festivity continued to mount as we were treated to an unbelievable opening ceremony with music, dance and acrobatics by some of the country’s finest talent. It was fantastic to see the country’s leading political, sporting, national and entertainment heroes present, showing their solidarity with the games. But the real stars were the athletes who openly danced in the aisles, sang and celebrated as the Olympic torch was led into the stadium, poignantly jointly carried by members of the Gardaí and PSNI to the fever-pitch roars of the crowd. This unified gesture is another reflection of how Special Olympics recognise everyone as equal—there is no barrier, there is no political, cultural or religious divide—inclusion is paramount. Another opening ceremony was taking place around the same time on the other side of the world, but the excitement in Limerick was simply breathtaking and could not have been surpassed even by the World Cup.
Following the opening ceremony the athletes, were guided away to their accommodation which would to be home for the next three nights. Quietly the three thousand volunteers once again descended like ants. Some assisted the athletes and teams to the many buses which were at hand for the athletes throughout the weekend; others folded away the thousands of chairs. They worked quietly and unobtrusively, some in the prime of their lives, others edging closer to retirement age—but again all working as a unit. And this was to set the tone for the weekend: volunteers at every corner,helping, guiding and directing people. No task too big or too small, and always with a smile on their faces.
Throughout the weekend the athletes continued to be treated like royalty. There were tears by some when they won. There were tears by some when they didn’t win. There were tears by parents, family members and supporters—just witnessing the courage and determination of the athletes. There was also much laughter, laughter that came from the heart as everyone shared in the excitement of the games.
As a first-time parent at the national games, I was completely bowled over by the support on hand for the athletes. Aside from the actual games, the athletes could also avail of the opportunity to visit the Olympic village. There they could take part in active and creative play, capture their memories in a free photo booth or avail of a massage. Nextdoor in the Healthy Athletes tent, the athletes could avail of a free eye test, with glasses also provided when required, podiatry services, dietary advice and dental advice, all by qualified professionals who had volunteered their services. Meanwhile, another trove of volunteers worked around the clock supplying all the meals, making thousands of sandwiches for packed lunches and cooking up a healthy evening meal for the athletes, coaches and chaperones. These games didn’t just happen. They were a culmination of four years of extremely hard work and dedication by the Special Olympics organisation north and south of the country, thousands of coaches, volunteers, family members, supporters and, most importantly, by the athletes who week-after-week trained hard in the hope of reaching the national finals.
As a mother of an athlete I found great solidarity among other parents who urged their child (not always quietly) through every step, swam every stroke with them and played every ball with them—proud of their achievements. This was replicated throughout every venue of the games in Limerick. Inclusion, in my opinion, is the key to the success of Special Olympics. Over the weekend I witnessed the ten-year-old athlete sit beside the 50-year-old athlete old, deep in conversation. The verbal and non-verbal can communicate in ways we will never understand; in one instance, two boys from different parts of the country kicked a ball over and back to each other for 20 minutes with not one word spoken, but an intuition between the two that was amazing to witness. Scenes like this were frequent all over the weekend.
Coming home from Limerick when the games were over I thought I would experience the usual emotions when one comes back from a momentous event to return to everyday tasks. However, I felt like I had just come back from an exotic holiday. I felt so fortunate to be part of that special weekend, of which I had heard other mothers speak about, but had never before enjoyed. I had been at the local, area and regional games over the last four years and didn’t think the atmosphere of these events could be surpassed. Even now the feeling of support that we witnessed that weekend lingers. The games taught something to everyone present—those who are familiar with intellectual disability and those who are not.
My one regret is that there was not more widespread TV coverage of the games because, as the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words and this was one of the largest sporting events in the country this year. No amount of words can adequately describe the scenes witnessed at the finals. When I discovered before the games that there would be no live coverage, I set up a very successful online petition to seek TV coverage of the games which was submitted to RTÉ ahead of the games. I was pleased that the games were featured nightly on news bulletins and also featured on a subsequent Nationwide programme. I hope now that into the future the games will receive the coverage they so richly deserve. The finals were an inspiration to everything that is good in this Country—f rom the athletes to the organisers, the coaches to the volunteers, family members and supporters. Everyone worked together to ensure that our very special people had a very special time. Thank you to everyone involved.