Team Ireland got a taste of the big time on Thursday night when they participated in the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi , UAE, was lit up by a spectacular firework and light show, as well as the Olympic flame, ahead of the games on Friday.
Members of the Irish team completed workshops to familiarise themselves with Middle Eastern culture before the games began, with organisers saying the athletes were keen to familiarise themselves with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes they would encounter during the event.
A team of 91 athletes, ranging in age from 16 to 69, will compete for Team Ireland in 15 sports at the games. Some of them had never flown before. More than 100 coaches, volunteers and medical staff have also travelled to the games, with about 400 friends and family members also expected to support the athletes.
Matt English , chief executive of Special Olympics Ireland said “mams and dads will be worrying” about how the athletes will get on but that the games present a “huge growth opportunity” for those who have travelled.
“After every world games, when we’re talking to the families afterwards they say ‘I can’t believe the improvements’. There’s just a general improvement in terms of the athletes outlook, independence and skills they learn,” he said.
Another workshop that proved popular ahead of the team’s departure was in the Chinese martial art Tai chi, which organisers said helped to manage “anxiety and stress” among the competitors.
Basketball player Grace Hamilton said she had practised Tai chi with her family ahead of the games and that it “relaxes me right down”.
“I can feel all the stress and negative energy just going through my fingertips, I can feel it just going down,” she said.
Mr English said Tai chi had been beneficial to a number of athletes, especially those needing to clear their heads.
“People with intellectual disability are more prone to obesity, they’re more prone to depression, more prone to a number of conditions than the mainstream population,” he added. “Thankfully I think the Special Olympics plays a huge part in fighting against a number of those challenges.”
Special Olympics Ireland currently receives funding from Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland , the HSE and Pobal as well as through the exploits of fundraising volunteers. Its sponsors include Eir, Gala Retail, Aer Lingus , Microsoft and Dell.
“Following the recession, Special Olympics Ireland did experience funding cuts, the same as the whole country did,” Mr English said. “We estimate that the cost – from the training, the uniforms, the residential weekends that they’ve had training, flights, the whole preparation and support – is about €450,000.”
He added: “Ireland is the only programme globally that send volunteers of this scale to help run the games. That’s part of a legacy of us having hosted a games in 2003.”