In December 2001, I was approached by the Director of the Sports and Competition Department for the Special Olympics 2003 World Summer Games to ascertain my interests in managing the Athletics Competition. The history of the athletics events at previous games had identified a number of shortcomings and, having been on the periphery of these events, I had some insight on the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that existed which could make this competition a world-class performance. I hoped my background as an Irish international athlete who had competed at numerous events which were run at world-class standard, combined with my professional training as a physical education teacher and twenty years experience in working with people with intellectual disability and sport, would help equip me for this exciting challenge. In January 2002 I started to surmount that challenge. The organisation of a world-class event to world-class standards under the approval of the international governing bodies was in itself a massive undertaking.
One of my first tasks was to identify what I perceived was needed to run an event of this magnitude. I jotted down a list of 168 tasks that, if executed successfully in a timely manner, would not alone ensure the smooth operation of this event, but would also ensure that the athlete would be to the forefront. My previous connections with the Athletics Association of Ireland and other renowned sporting organisations had positioned me to recruit a core group of six to ten sports personnel who had years of event-management knowledge and practical experience. This proved to be one of the key ingredients on which the foundation was laid for the athletic competition for the 2003 Special Olympic World Games. It was estimated that we would need approximately 1200 volunteers to run the competition for the 1200 registered athletes over a period of nine days. The volunteers were recruited and trained by members of this core team.
Fundamental to the running of the athletic competition to a world-class standard was the identification of officials who would have primary responsibility that each event and who fulfilled the criteria as outlined by the International Amateur Athletic Federation. Seventy officials were recruited, both Irish and international staff who had experience in the organisation of major international events. Their assistance and support was another important contributor to the smooth running of the athletic competition.
When the official athlete registration closed, it emerged that we had in excess of 1000 events to be hosted over the 60-hours of competition during the Games. This meant that an event would need to be run every 3 minutes. This was now to serve as the template that would roster our volunteers for the duration of the competition, with the needs of the athlete defining the role of the volunteer. Volunteers were required to support the athletes at registration, warm-up and staging—to escort them to their track or field event and to assist in the preparation for this event. Over the nine-day period, volunteers’ put in working shifts averaging 12 hours (with two days off, which were not availed of by the majority of volunteers). The Games could not have happened without these volunteers and officials; their enthusiasm, commitment, the knowledge and skills they brought with them was fundamental in the successful operation of this athletic competition. It was one of the largest events ever to be run in the history of sport, in a league with the Commonwealth Games, Manchester 2002, and the forthcoming Olympic Games to be held in Greece in 2004.
At 2.45 pm on Wednesday 25 June 2003, as I walked through the large crowds of spectators of the grassy banks of sunny Morton Stadium, a sense of wonder and excitement filled the arena. The competition was in full swing and for the first time in two years I knew that this was going to be the most spectacular competition ever seen in these isles. As I watched the athletes line up for the start of the 400 meters I got the attention of James Healy, one of the start team officials involved in timing. James had attended one of first induction evenings for volunteers in Cathal Brugha Street back in early February and he reminded me of a comment I made on that very first training evening, that this would be ‘a once-in-a-lifetime chance not to be missed’, and ‘being involved would have an everlasting influence on us all and reshape in our minds the true meaning of what real sport and competition is about.’ Sadly, for James it was also to be his last sporting event—he passed away in December 2003.
As with all world athletic competitions, the nine days at Morton stadium provided us with a feast of high-class athletic competition. The Special Olympic athletes oath: ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt’ was the true spirit in which each and every individual athlete performed. Amongst the highlights for me was seeing the forst marathon runner enter a sun-drenched, packed Morton stadium to the cheers of spectators and volunteers.
As the athletes in the final athletic event, the 4 x 400 meter relay, approached the finish line I heard my name shouted by a fellow international distance runner: ‘I have never experienced anything like this in all my running years. It will be a long time before we ever experience anything like this again.’ I was very proud to be part of the organising team of this great event.
The Special Olympic World Summer Games 2003 was a major sporting success and this was not just by chance. The sports department of the Games was made up of a group of people who had a vast number of skills and experience. As a group they had one challenge—to put sport on the highest level for persons with an intellectual disability. The common goal of the sport and competition department was to run a sporting event that would leave a legacy for our national programme.
The summer of 2003 has passed and we must move on. But the memories of the Games are still fresh in our minds. There now exists an ideal opportunity to develop and build a national sporting programme. Special Olympics Ireland hopes to set up sporting clubs in towns and communities throughout Ireland. The success of this programme is highly dependent upon teams of dedicated volunteers to train and organise the athletes. In order to ensure that the legacy from the World Summer Games lives on, and that the talents and abilities of persons with intellectual disabilities within our communities are truly realised, we need your continued support.