Wednesday 26 October 2016

Mary Davis: When 'The Champ' came to Ireland in 2003, we were more than special

Global CEO of Special Olympics Mary Davis remembers 'The Champ' when he came to Ireland for the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

Mary Davis

Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30

Britain’s power lifter Gary Haynes, left, with Muhammad Ali at the 2003 Special Olympics in Dublin Picture: Reuters/Paul McErlane
Britain’s power lifter Gary Haynes, left, with Muhammad Ali at the 2003 Special Olympics in Dublin Picture: Reuters/Paul McErlane

It was a beautiful balmy evening in Croke Park on June 21, 2003. After years of preparation, it was finally here. The opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games and 'The Champ' was in our corner.

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I can still hear the roars of 80,000 people as Muhammad Ali entered the stadium. He was adored and the euphoric crowd let him know it. If there was a roof, it would have been lifted.

His passing has reawakened in me those memories of being in the presence of a genuine champion in every sense.

He was frail from Parkinson's disease but his condition didn't soften his charisma or his charm. They were unbreakable and unforgettable.

His smile was broad and he had beautiful eyes. We spoke about his Irish roots of which he was very proud. But above all else, his love for the Special Olympics athletes is what I remember most. While everyone wanted to meet him and to shake his hand, he only wanted to meet Special Olympics athletes.

He wanted to spend time with them and inspire them to be the best that they can be. From the moment he arrived in Ireland for the games, athletes were his sole focus.

He once said: "Losers are those who don't have a cause they care about."

He cared deeply for Special Olympics.

His love and support for Special Olympics athletes dates back to the 1970s and he often said it is these athletes that are the "true sports heroes".

Over the decades, he regularly changed his plans and travel arrangements at the last minute so he could attend Special Olympics games and events anywhere in the world. We were so blessed that he wanted to be in Ireland for our games in 2003.

His condition worsened that year but he didn't let that stop him. He wouldn't disappoint the athletes.

When he was heading to the airport to fly back home a few days after the opening ceremony, I remember he insisted on taking a detour so he could make a stop to visit a sports event.

He wanted to spend one more hour with the athletes. As it wasn't a planned visit, the look of surprise and excitement on the faces of those at the event was a magical sight. The magic soon turned into chaos. People went wild for him.

I remember myself and colleagues literally having to form a human chain around him to protect him from the crowds.

They all wanted to touch The Champ. Their Champion.

The 2003 games also brought Muhammad Ali face to face with one of his own personal heroes and one of mine - Nelson Mandela.

I will never forget the incredible charge and emotion in the room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin, the moment the two men met, which happened on the morning after the opening ceremony.

It was a special moment to witness and the memory is one that I treasure.

They were so full of fun and joy that day. The iconic image, superbly taken by Ray McManus, showing Mandela's 'straight left' to the chin of The Champ captures the mutual respect and admiration both held for each other.

Muhammad Ali said of Nelson Mandela that "he taught us forgiveness on a grand scale" while Mandela told the world that Ali was an inspiration to him in prison, because he thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport.

Behind these true accolades are men that deeply enriched our world and all our lives through their character and actions.

After the image was taken, they exchanged some brief private words before getting back to focusing on the reason they were there - to spend time with the athletes of Special Olympics.

Ali said: "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." The Champ gave immeasurable service to Special Olympics over his lifetime and inspired millions of athletes with intellectual disabilities to believe that nothing is impossible.

May he rest in peace.

Irish Independent

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