Wednesday 13 December 2017

Athletes savour moment in heaven they'll never forget

Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Flag after flag, country after country, athlete after athlete danced down the red carpet. The blazing sun bounced off the greens, the yellows, the blues and the whites as, over two hours, the teams filled in the dried grass surface to turn it into a kaleidoscopic pitch of nations.

It was as the clock behind the stage in the famous LA Coliseum struck 6pm that the giant screens flickered and on came Barack Obama to signal it was showtime.

And what a show it would be. US TV personality Jimmy Kimmel told the athletes the crowds were there "to encourage you and support you but most importantly to take selfies with you".

He wasn't wrong. Even after the sun finally relented, the dusk sky was lit up with camera flashes both on and off the pitch.

All around the stadium there were large pockets of luminous green among the 60,000 spectators, waiting anxiously for our heroes to emerge from the tunnel in the bottom left of the arena.

Sticking with Olympic tradition, Greece was the first country to find its place at the centre of attention. Then came five Afghani athletes, followed by Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Argentina, Armenia, Aruba, Australia...Iran, Iraq and finally, over an hour after the procession began, Team Ireland.

You didn't need to know their names, you didn't need to know what county they were from, you didn't need to know their sport. All you needed to do was look at their faces.

Everybody should have a moment in their life when their face widens to the point of aching, the pain of the stretch marks on their grins only adding to the sensation.

Waving enthusiastically, the 88 Irish athletes, led by Colin Farrell, Claudine Keane and John Treacy, took their moment, made more than the most of it and packaged it away in that part of their hearts where things can never be forgotten.

It was their Italia '90 moment as 'Olé Olé' broke out and stewards struggled to contain the excitement.

"I feel like I'm in heaven," Donal O'Mahoney from Wicklow said, while searching for suitable adjectives.

And he wasn't alone.

Anita O'Connor from Carlow town was experiencing her first time outside of Ireland and "couldn't think" what she was feeling as she sat on the pitch gazing at the pageantry around her.

Tim Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, tried to sum it up. "Athletes this is your moment. This is your time. All around the world the wind is at your back.

"You look everywhere and see only but the beauty of the world," he said.

It might be a hyperbole to say the cheers could be heard from downtown to Tinseltown, from Venice Beach to Long Beach but such was the impact that it felt like that.

Even a false start by Stevie Wonder only added to the euphoria.

"You are the ones that will make a difference every single day. Your courage, your desire to make the world better...," he mused before performing 'Fear can't put dreams to sleep'.

By the time most of the singing and dancing was done, it fell to Michelle Obama to declare the Games open. She said they had captured the spirit of unity and "show us that we are all in this together".

"We see it in the amazing athletes who give it their all, who high-five and hug everyone of their competitors.

"We see it not just here in Los Angeles but in the millions and millions of people all around the world who are tuning in to cheer you on," she told the 7,000 participants.

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