Let the games begin

FOR the next week or so, the world rotates around Ireland. At least, it should.

After years of planning, the Special Olympics World Games have finally arrived on our shores, opening in Croke Park this evening.

This small, young nation may never be the same again. Nelson Mandela will be there.

It seems fitting that the most inspirational human in history is cutting the ribbon on the most inspirational event ever staged on this island.

More importantly, 7,000 athletes will also be there, each with their own story to tell. In every flag they rally behind there will be a cause for celebration.

From Afghanistan to Palestine to Iraq, each team resonates with its own sense of place.

Kinsale took Palestine into their heart, but it will be the appearance of Afghanistan, the first Afghan team to compete at any sporting event since 1996, that should give us cause to reflect.

In a country where basic needs such as water and electricity are incredibly scarce, people with mental disabilities are barely recognised, let alone treated respectfully.

As children, they are often abandoned in ramshackle orphanages, where they may be left in empty rooms with no human contact or guidance.

It lifts the heart to learn that three of the five Afghan athletes come from two orphanages in Kabul.

Still not moved? Think of Iraq. That their eight athletes can compete at all is a triumph over adversity, one tinged with poignancy when you recall that Saddam Hussein's son Uday was the head of the regular Olympic Committee.

He notoriously tortured athletes who didn't perform well.

The Special Olympics is about the effort you make. Winning is secondary to competing. Everybody counts.

That Iraq can send eight of its society's most vulnerable people to compete in such a sporting event has become a big part of this spectacle.

It's not hard to become demoralised watching modern sport.

Look left and there's corruption; right we have bribery. Straight ahead, drug- taking.

If the Special Olympics makes the impression it should, we should be left hankering after a more innocent time, when sport didn't necessarily equate with cynicism.

It will be a novel experience watching athletes compete for medals without those doubts in the back of your mind.

The one word that stands out in the organisation's motto is brave. Tonight, tomorrow, next week, we will be marvelling at people who have surmounted great odds to compete, and now do so in the forgotten spirit of the Olympic movement.

Almost 100 years ago, just before the 1908 Games in Paris, the Bishop of Pennsylvania summed up his thoughts when the Olympics crossed his mind.

"The important thing in the Olympic Games," he proclaimed, "is not winning, but taking part. For the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well."

If somebody said the same thing about the modern Olympics, they would do so only with their tongue firmly stapled to their cheek. Unless they were talking about the Special Olympics.

All the athletes we will see in the coming days learned to fight and fight well. They have fought the twin ills of prejudice and patronisation to come this far, and now they will fight again to prove their athletic and sporting worth.

Dictionary-defined, sport means amusement and fun. Sport should be about enjoyment.

Of all the images from North Carolina four years ago, one stands out.

Captured brilliantly by the lens of Ray McManus, it shows Irish basketball player Agnes Melvin staring into the camera, a wide beam painted across her face, giving a thumbs-up to the eye of the camera.

That picture encapsulated what Eunice Kennedy Shriver was striving for when she created these games: sport in the spirit in which it was meant to be played.

Fun not dulled by competition.

The spirit of the Special Olympics seems to have refurbished the Irish soul, which had been thought corroded by years of take, take, take.

Of course, because of our nationality, we had to play the fools at some stage.

The hysteria spawned by a respiratory infection in east Asia was a little too much.

Marian and Joe's switchboards lit up for days.

Some high-pitched voices even cried "cancel the whole thing", just to render the unbelievable efforts of Mary Davis and her organising team useless, as well as those of the coaches and athletes from 164 countries.

Fortunately, sense prevailed for once, and even Hong Kong, which took 58 gold medals home from North Carolina, gained a conditional, protracted entry into our island.

There will be smiles in Clonmel when the first athlete from Hong Kong comes onto our screens this evening.

The problem of certain countries obtaining visas is better left untouched. In the light of new census figures, it tells its own story.

We are a new nation, after all. The Special Olympics are all about attitude. That's true for the competitors.

For the rest of us, it should be about changing attitudes. Signs are already good that people have peeled back some amount of prejudice.

During the next week, this nation should have shed that entire skin.

Prepare yourself for what the Americans term an attitude adjustment. Prepare yourself also to be transported back to a time when sport was all about the joy of competing, when winning wasn't everything or the only thing.

There are abiding memories from North Carolina in the cobwebs of this mind. I was stilled while watching a game of Bocce, a skilful, strategic sport similar to lawn bowling and unique to the Special Olympics.

One competitor rolled the ball down the green, but it fell some way short of its target. She turned away, her face crinkling in dismay.

Her opponent put her arm around her and rolled the ball further down the green. In the gallery, spectators were speechless.

Marcel Marceau was correct when he said the most moving moments of our lives leave us without words.

There will be 7,000 stories like hers that will touch your heart and mind this week. Each participant needs to be recognised for their special talents, their special ability, for the courage in their attempt.

When you are a child with mental disabilities, there comes a time when the other children don't invite you to play.

Now, these athletes can teach us all the true value of sport. Victory and defeat mean a lot less than simply competing.

As the oath says, "let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt."

Words like courage and determination are dropped into sport and sports reporting so often that even as clichés they become meaningless.

But for the next eight days, they will mean something.

For the next eight days, the veil of suspicion and intrigue that drapes over our sporting world will be lifted.

This sporting event is solely about the participants, and PR-hungry politicians vying for photo opportunities should fade into the background. All focus should be on the athletes.

Athletes from Sierra Leone, the smallest delegation, and the US, the largest. Athletes from Venezuela and Burkina Faso, from Turkmenistan and Zambia.

This week, the world should revolve around Ireland. And we should feel privileged to be part of it all.

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