In the Special Olympics, the sport’s commissioner at these games, Frank Donohoe, likes to think of it as an even gentler version of the gentle way.
To untrained eyes, a first sight of the events at Santry’s Sportslink venue near Dublin Airport yesterday provided little evidence of a gentle touch as bodies were sent crashing to the floor to the accompaniment of cheers.
But when all 52 athletes were on the mat at the same time, together with their coaches, you were bound to miss out on the subtleties of the event.
After a frustrating few days watching all the athletes from other events get stuck into their chosen activities, the judo players finally got their turn yesterday, as their discipline took its bow as a Special Olympics World Games demonstration sport.
Judo is one of three demo sports being introduced by the Organising Committee for 2003, alongside pitch & putt and kayaking. And the judo players were gathered together for an opening day of clinics and seminars before today’s divisioning ahead of Saturday’s competition.
Sounds dull, but when one of the clinics involved athletes using their coaches as throwing fodder by means of warming up for the main event, Donohoe’s aim of providing an entertaining and enjoyable environment for judo was clearly being realised.
“What we’re trying to achieve here is fun,” Donohoe said. “That’s certainly been the way it’s been since I came into Special Olympics judo. “The etiquette rules of the sport still apply but they’re more interpretative.”
In other words, the athletes’ needs are put first and the etiquette takes a back seat, which is more unusual than routine but, in this case, far better.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is the coaches interact with their players, and the referees interact with the players, which would not be allowed normally. But it gives atmosphere and spirit to the event and it’s wonderful to see the athletes wanting to participate with a coach whereas they’re normally not encouraged to do so.
“So, it’s been all about communication, contact and fun. And the big word is fun.”
And so to the gentle way. Donohoe, who is also vice-president of the Irish Judo Association, explained that in Special Olympics the scoring and the starting positions for the bouts are adapted to the needs of the individual athlete, while traditional arm-locking and strangling techniques are not permitted. Thank God for that.
“It’s the gentle interpretation of the gentle way and that’s the biggest benefit that I see coming from Special Olympics.”
Great Britain coaches Steve Hammond and Paul Everest were delighted to be present at judo’s birth as a Special Olympic sport.
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve been made most welcome in Ireland. Our host town, Galway, has been absolutely fantastic and we’re really enjoying the games. For judo, it’s the first time it’s been in the games as a demonstration sport and it’s positive and it’s showing what people with a learning disability can achieve.
“The athletes really put their heart and soul into it and our sport really needs to get into the full games programme.
“Judo brings confidence to people with learning disabilities, in their ability to achieve; it’s a great achievement. No matter what skill level you’re at. You’re working and striving your best.”
The Irish were conspicuous by their absence, but judo commissioner Donohoe said: “We would have loved to have had our own athletes here but, in realistic terms, it just wasn’t achievable. We didn’t have a specific programme in place.