Friday 28 October 2016

'He made the Special Olympics a success'

Published 06/06/2016 | 02:30

Muhammad Ali arriving at the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games at Croke Park Photo: Steve Humphreys
Muhammad Ali arriving at the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games at Croke Park Photo: Steve Humphreys

More than 30 years after Muhammad Ali's first visit to Croke Park to fight Al Lewis, he returned in 2003 for the opening of the Special Olympics.

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It was the first time the games had been held outside of America and the organisers felt under pressure to put on a spectacular show under an intense spotlight.

Special Olympics senior director of sport Frances Kavanagh was a director of the games. She said having the world's greatest boxer on Jones's Road was crucial.

"We wanted the most iconic people from sport, music and global areas and he was the pinnacle for so many people. Getting someone like Nelson Mandela, U2 and someone like him certainly brought the world to Croke Park. It was amazing - and it is sad now he's gone but the magic will live on," she said.

"I remember being in Croke Park at the time and the crowd just went wild. The cameras zoned in on him immediately when they realised who it was. There were tears and laughter and it really was emotional."

Ms Kavanagh was saddened to tears when she heard of the boxer's passing but said that his legacy was in no doubt.

"He was a joy to work with," she said. "With no airs or graces despite his stature. His participation in the games was never in doubt.

"There was absolutely no question about it. He was coming and for all of those athletes who were involved and got photographs, it is something they will always remember.

"The man was such a superstar but he was no trouble at all. He was just a lovely person.

"The athletes had their parents there and many of them would have grown up getting up in the middle of the night to watch the fights. It was a great experience for everybody who was there. Not just the athletes, but anyone in Croke Park.

"I can still see his face. He was still very strong and healthy then at that stage. You could just see his grin starting to come and then that great big smile."

Ali spent his time in Ireland greeting the athletes and mingling with locals.

Ms Kavanagh said having him on board helped to make the games a huge success.

"We wanted to get the greatest and the most iconic figures. He was just inspiring.

"Those were the first games outside of the States. We were very keen to make sure the games were of the country and we succeeded with that. Last year the games were in LA and I can safely say not many in LA knew the games were taking place.

"The 2003 games were huge and because they were in Dublin it was a talking point because it was going to be interesting to see how a small place like Ireland could do it. We wanted to make sure they were the best games ever.

"I think everyone will remember him as they would have seen him or known him."

Irish Independent

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