Friday 20 April 2018

'Ireland can carry torch for Special Olympics ethos'

Special Olympian Keith Butler
Special Olympian Keith Butler
Sarah Byrne, with her dad Derek in Los Angeles

The nephew of John F Kennedy wants every school in Ireland to be made more aware of the challenges facing people with intellectual disabilities.

Tim Shriver believes Ireland can once again be a "game changer" for Special Olympics by bringing its message into schools around the country.

"I think this movement has a certainly solidarity with the Irish tradition and culture, and the people of today. And I hope also with the Irish future," he said.

"I hope every school in Ireland will one day have a Special Olympics unified team on it. I hope every village and every community centre and sports club in Ireland will have a Special Olympics division so that there is no longer any difference," Mr Shriver told the Irish Independent.

Unified Sports see people with intellectual disability train and play together in an effort to break down stereotypes in a fun way.

Half a million people worldwide already participate, but it is likely to grow in the coming years.

Special Olympics Ireland already has a unified golf team and Matt English, CEO of Special Olympics Ireland, hopes to see it brought into workplaces as well.

"Where we see unified being really useful is where you have people with intellectual disabilities going into a company like Eircom and taking part in their sport days." The Special Olympics started as 'Camp Shriver' in the back garden of Mr Shriver's mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in 1962.

The first full games were held in 1968, but it wasn't until they came to Dublin in 2003 that they were held outside the United States.

"The great thing about the games in Ireland was that the entire nation became a part of it, not just a city, not just one community, one company, one group of volunteers," said Mr Shriver.

"In some ways, that's the aspiration of our movement. Not just to have one group of people join in the welcome, but to have a whole group of nations."

Eighty-eight athletes from the 32 counties have spent the past week competing in 13 different sports at the World Games in Los Angeles.

Ireland was the only country outside the US to send volunteers to help run the LA Games and as a result our athletes had the most support apart from the hometown Americans.

"Ireland got the second biggest cheer at the Opening Ceremony. Obviously you expect the biggest one to be reserved for the host nation USA but, my God, we thought we were in Ireland when we heard the cheer go up," said Mr English.

"All 88 athletes have done us so proud. One of the things that struck me the most was how many athletes performed personal bests. They performed out of their skins," he said.

Team Ireland will arrive back in Dublin Airport with dozens of medals in athletics, swimming, gymnastics, golf, basketball, equestrian, bocce and table tennis.

Even for those who didn't win, it was a week of competition, companionship, celebration and celebrity.

Colin Farrell and Robbie Keane acted as Special Olympics Ireland ambassadors, with Farrell telling the Irish Independent it was "an honour to be anywhere close to the experience that these athletes are having".

"Ever since 2003 when we hosted the Games at home in Ireland it's been something that has lived in me," he said.

The reoccurring theme in the Irish camp was the confidence gained by the athletes performing in front of often huge crowds.

Badminton player Brian Hooper from Galway was captivated by "all the movie stars and famous people".

As the curtain came down on the games, Mr English said the past week had seen "outstanding performances by everybody connected with Team Ireland".

Irish Independent

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