Celebrating the Special Olympics...
The 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games have already proven unique, due to the huge number of 'firsts' associated with them. It is the first time the Games have been held outside America. It is the first time Ireland has held such an enormous event. It is the first time the Games' opening ceremony will be broadcast live around the world, to an estimated audience of one billion people. And it is the first time that the participation of hundreds of athletes has been threatened by a virus that was unknown just months before the event.
Even the journey of the Special Olympics torch, the Flame of Hope, has been unique leaving the sacred site of Pnyx at the Acropolis in Athens, travelling 15,000km throughout Europe, before arriving in Bangor. Prior to its arrival in Croke Park for the opening ceremony, the torch will have travelled through 130 communities in Ireland, even being carried across the sea from Donegal to Sligo, marking another first. The lighted torch has never been transported on water before and the exercise involved members of the Garda Sub-Aqua Club snorkelling across the sea from St John's Point in Donegal to Mullaghmore in Sligo.
The work that has gone into the 2003 Special Olympics, by everyone from the athletes themselves, to volunteers, host towns and the Games' Organising Committee, is set to culminate into an event unlike any ever seen in Ireland.
Among the main sports venues for events are: the RDS (gymnastics, power lifting, table tennis, bocce, motor activities), Phoenix Park (cycling), Morton Stadium Santry (athletics), National Aquatics Centre, Abbotstown (aquatics), National Badminton Centre, Baldoyle (badminton), ESB arena Tallaght, UCD and Loughlinstown Leisure Centre (basketball), Leisureplex, Blanchardstown (bowling), Kill Equestrian Centre (equestrian events), UCD and AUL, Clonshaugh (soccer), Portmarnock Golf Club and Elmgreen Golf Club (golf), King's Hall, Belfast (roller-skating) and Royal St George Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire (sailing).
The hosting of the games here, during the European Year of the Disabled, has also helped highlight flaws in Ireland's disability services and has increased pressure on the Government to produce promised new rights-based legislation.
Preparations since 1996
However while the Games officially open on June 21, Ireland's involvement as potential hosts dates back to 1996, when Special Olympics International sought bids to host the 2003 Games outside America for the first time. In June of that year, the Irish Government established an inter-departmental group to examine the feasibility of Ireland making a bid to host the Games.
In December 1996, the Government considered the group's report and agreed to the preparation of a bid, which began in 1997. Ireland's bid was submitted to Special Olympics International in November 1997. In April 1998, a team was sent to Ireland to assess the bid and finally in July of that year, the decision was announced; Ireland would be the hosts of the first Special Olympics World Summer Games to be held outside America.
Largest sporting event
The importance of this event for Ireland cannot be underestimated, according to the Games' Organising Committee.
"This will be the largest event Ireland has hosted and will be the largest sporting event in the world this year. It will see Ireland on the international stage celebrating sport and sportsmanship. The whole of Ireland will be involved in this event through the Host Town Programme, the School Enrichment Programme, the Host a Family Programme and the work of 30,000 volunteers".
However it is the athletes that hold the key to this spectacular event. Around 7,000 athletes, all with a learning disability, have travelled here with 3,000 coaches and official delegates, as well as 28,000 family and friends from countries all over the world. They will take part in a range of sports including aquatics, athletics, badminton, basketball, cycling, equestrian, football, golf, gymnastics, roller skating, table tennis, tennis and volleyball.
There will also be a comprehensive motor activity programme offered. This is a non-competitive programme for athletes who have not yet acquired skills to participate fully in a competitive environment. Kayaking, judo and pitch and putt, will also be offered as demonstration sports.
"The World Games of Special Olympics is an occasion of joyful competition and sharing among athletes, their families and coaches, as well as an unforgettable and life-changing opportunity for ordinary fans to see people with learning disabilities perform at their very best", said Timothy Shriver, president of the Special Olympics.
Mr Shriver believes that the World Games are a 'living metaphor for human acceptance and reconciliation'. They are a 'dramatic demonstration of our need and responsibility to include all our citizens in productive society'.
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, Shay Given, with Irish Special Olympic athletes, Deirdre O'Callaghan and Nicola Higgins
However for hundreds of athletes, their dream to take part in the 2003 Olympics hung in the balance for a long time, due to an illness nobody had even heard of six months ago. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has caused chaos around the world. As of mid-June, almost 800 people had lost their lives to the syndrome, with thousands more declared 'probable cases'.
While the syndrome initially only appeared to be affecting parts of Asia, it soon spread elsewhere, due to the ease of global travel. While deaths were mainly confined to certain parts of Asia and Toronto, suspect cases were declared all over the world, including Ireland, when a number of people travelling from SARS-affected areas were thought to have contracted the illness and then carried it here.
From the outset, the Department of Health and Health Minister, Micheal Martin, were criticised for their apparent lack of preparedness, should a SARS outbreak occur here. This was not helped by the fact that public health doctors, whose job it is to monitor infectious diseases, including SARS, had begun strike action.
In fact the president of the Irish Medical Organisation, Dr Joe Barry, warned about the 'real and present danger' of SARS due to Ireland's lack of preparedness over two months ago, adding that this could pose a potential crisis for the Special Olympics.
Then in May, a controversial decision to effectively ban athletes from countries badly affected by SARS, including China and Hong Kong, was taken by the SARS Expert Group which had been established by the Department of Health.
The move was severely criticised by many, including the Olympics Organising Committee, disability support groups and host towns, who queried why athletes had been singled out in a travel ban, while other people from affected regions were free to travel to Ireland. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also said that the decision was not consistent with the latest WHO guidelines, while Mr Shriver described it as a 'low point' for the Special Olympics'.
"In planning our first Summer World Games outside of the United States, we were confident in choosing Ireland, a nation unmatched in its much deserved reputation for hospitality. It is therefore shocking to us now to be forced to acknowledge that we face the imminent prospect of the banning of some of our athletes", Mr Shriver said.
He added that the decision of the Irish Government to impose travel restrictions on certain delegations puzzled the Games' organisers, as it went far beyond the recommendations of the WHO, despite 'no logical justification'.
However two apparent u-turns by the Government then appeared to be paving the way for the involvement of all athletes. First it was announced that delegates from areas within China and Canada, where local transmission of SARS had not been reported, could now come to Ireland. However athletes from affected areas within these countries, including Toronto and Honk Kong, still could not come to Ireland.
Then the Department of Health decided that athletes from Hong Kong could travel, following a proposal from the Hong Kong authorities which was deemed acceptable to the SARS Expert Group. It involved the athletes being kept in quarantine in Macau, where they would be closely monitored. A medical examination would be conducted before their departure for Dublin and they would then be assessed on arrival here by an Irish consultant.
Intense political pressure by the Hong Kong authorities and increasing criticism from the Games' organisers more than likely played a role in the Expert Group's decision.
Other regions affected by the travel restriction subsequently submitted similar proposals and in mid-June, the Taiwanese delegation were given the all clear to travel, subject to undergoing quarantine. The Taiwanese team were the final team from a SARS-affected region to have travel restrictions lifted. In retrospect, the controversy over SARS was not about the Special Olympics, but more about Ireland's creaking health service and its ability to deal with even a small health crisis.
Dublin actor, Colin Farrell, shows off some Special Olympics merchandise
It was also confirmed that the team from Iraq would be taking part. The team, who had initially withdrawn due to the war there, subsequently went missing. However a persistent search resulted in Saad Abd Yassin, the National Director of Special Olympics Iraq, being located. Further searches then located the athletes and coaches and a team of eight athletes are now taking part.
"It is great news that Iraq will be able to attend after all. People with a learning disability overcome great obstacles every day of their lives. These Iraqi athletes have had to overcome that and much more. They are an inspiration to us all", said Mary Davies, chief executive of the Organising Committee.
For the Games, there are 22 competition venues in Dublin, Belfast and Kildare. A massive transportation plan involves moving thousands of athletes, families and spectators around and so some traffic disruption will be inevitable. But it is all in a great cause.
After all of the controversy and drama, the stage is now set for the most unforgettable event ever to be held in this country, from the opening ceremony on June 21, which will feature amongst others, former South African President, Nelson Mandela to the closing event on June 29, which will honour the 30,000 volunteers.
Entry to all sporting events is free of charge to spectators, subject to some restrictions.
* Irishhealth.com will be covering the Special Olympics live.
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