“Few things in life could have given me greater pleasure or brought me more honour than to be associated with the Special Olympics. I regard myself privileged to be here on this occasion,” he told the crowd in Croke Park.
“Special Olympics is testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” he continued. “Many of you have suffered great disadvantage in your lives...you serve as an example and inspiration.”
Mr Mandela’s words echoed the speech of President Mary McAleese who thanked the athletes for coming to Ireland.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be the first country outside the US to host this spectacular event,” she said.
“We are very proud of the way our small island, north, south, east and west, has opened its heart to you our special visitors. We wish you fun, laughter, happy memories and the gift of great new friendships.”
Special Olympics athlete and regional messenger for Special Olympics Europe, Anne Hickey, said Special Olympics had changed lives. “This experience will last forever,” she said.
World Games board member and former Special Olympics athlete, Rita Lawlor, said the gathering represented “ability from all over the world” and she urged the athletes to “party” in celebration of themselves.
Honorary torch bearer and film star Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the opening ceremony the best ever in Special Olympics history.
Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was marking the 40th anniversary of her historic visit to Ireland with her brother, then President John F. Kennedy in 1963, reminded the crowd of the hardships and suffering endured by many of the 170 million people in the world with learning disabilities.
She compared their struggle for recognition with Ireland’s struggle for freedom, dignity and justice. “They have done nothing wrong, committed no crime, perpetuated no injustice.
"They are the world’s most innocent victims and they suffer only because they are different,” she said.