Saturday 17 February 2018

TV Guide... Going for gold

The Special Olympics kicked off in LA yesterday with a lavish opening ceremony. Emily Hourican looks forward to a week of sporting achievement for Team Ireland

Ireland's Special Olympians
Ireland's Special Olympians

On Tuesday morning, 88 Special Olympic athletes, along with their coaches, managers, families, friends and supporters, left Ireland on a dedicated Aer Lingus flight for Los Angeles, and nine days of sporting competition that sees them up against nearly 7,000 other athletes from 177 different countries.

Expectation was high, with footballer Robert Byrne undoubtedly putting words to the thoughts in many hearts when he said, "I'm looking forward to doing the team proud, doing the country proud, doing my family proud." Equestrian Elizabeth Mair, who won gold at the National Games, described herself as "shocked but very happy and delighted" to be selected, saying that her training with Special Olympics has meant "the chance to meet new people, to go training and to learn new things." As Matt English, CEO of Special Olympics Ireland put it, "To be wearing the Ireland jersey and representing your country is a huge honour, and means so much to them."

It's the first time the Summer Games have been held in the US in 16 years, and the Saturday opening ceremony was a fitting homecoming for an event that began relatively small in Chicago in 1968, with around 1,000 athletes from the US and Canada only, and has since grown at a remarkable pace. Stevie Wonder and Avril Lavigne were among the performers due to sing to a crowd expected to include Michelle Obama, actress Eva Longoria and Olympic star Michael Phelps. For Team Ireland, being led into the LA Coliseum by Colin Farrell, Claudine Keane and Irish Olympian John Treacy - who won his Olympic Silver marathon medal there in 1984 - would surely have been an intensely proud moment.

The Special Olympics were started by John F Kennedy's sister Eunice, who married Robert Sargent Shriver. She grew up swimming, sailing, skiing and playing football with her sister Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. Later, Eunice became a college athlete, and began to understand the ways in which sports could be a common ground to unite and inspire people from all walks of life and different abilities. "Through sports they can realise their potential for growth," was her basic belief, and so she started inviting young people with intellectual disabilities to a summer day camp she hosted in her backyard, in an effort to encourage happiness and a sense of belonging. 'Camp Shriver' as it was called, went on to become the Special Olympics.

This year, the youngest competitor is eight-year-old Ian Wong of Macau, who is taking part in track and field, and the oldest is 71-year-old golfer Patrick Rutherford of Team Ireland. There are 25 events, including swimming, track and field, beach volleyball, badminton, soccer, tennis and a triathlon, and competitors are divided according to age and ability; the top three finishers are awarded gold, silver and bronze medals, but everyone gets a participation ribbon and a chance to stand on the victory platform.

More than 120,000 people so far have volunteered for the Fans in the Stands programme and will turn up to cheer on the athletes. The Special Olympics isn't just a sporting competition, it is one of the great feel-good events of the international sporting calendar. As Eunice Shriver put it in 1987, "You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence, you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory." Thanks to her, the athletes who compete have proved the truth of those words again and again.

The Opening Ceremony will be televised on ESPN today, 1.45-4.15pm. RTÉ News will provide reports and updates on the Special Olympics across television, radio and online news coverage

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