Team Ireland – including 21 Ulster athletes – made their first appearance at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, taking part in the Opening Ceremony’s official athletes’ parade, led out by Irish representatives including Brendan Whelan, Chairman for Special Olympics Ireland and Shane Ross, Irish Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
91 athletes representing Ireland travelled to Abu Dhabi to compete on a world stage at the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2019. A team of 39 management volunteers also travelled with the athletes. The Games officially launched tonight (Thursday 14 March) at a star-studded Opening Ceremony at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium, the largest stadium in the United Arab Emirates.
The event saw several international celebrities making the trip to Abu Dhabi to show their support for Special Olympics athletes including global ambassador, Nicole Scherzinger and Avril Lavigne, who took to the stage with a performance of her song, ‘Fly’. The ‘Flame of Hope’ also completed its final journey into the iconic Zayed Sports City stadium, lighting the cauldron to mark the official opening of the World Games.
Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics delivered a rousing speech at the Opening Ceremony. Opening his address to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shriver said: “In a world of tension and division you are a ripple of compassion, a wave of compassion.”
He went on to deliver a passionate address to athletes from 200 countries: “In this, the 50th year of the Special Olympics movement, the athletes are here to say that they are the prophets of tolerance, the prophets of compassion, the prophets of a whole new world where everybody gets a chance, where everybody belongs, where everybody contributes and where everybody is on the playing field of life.
“You have won the most important race already; yes you will compete, and yes you will prove yourselves and yes, you will take home medals but please know, by your open hearts and freedom, you have already changed the course of history; by your competitive spirit, you have already changed the face of sport; and by marshalling the energies of love and sharing them with us all, you have already won the gold medals.”
Team Ireland volunteer Philomena O’Hare was given the privilege of reading the Officials’ Oath on behalf of all judges and officials attending the Games. Philomena, a member of Navan Arch Club in Meath, competed at the 2015 World Summer Games in Los Angeles and has joined the team in Abu Dhabi as a Table Official for this year’s basketball events.
Matt English, CEO Special Olympics Ireland, said Special Olympics Ireland was thrilled to have such fantastic support for the Irish athletes in the parade. He said: “Special Olympics Ireland has always relied on the support of friends across many different spectrums. We are proud to have such support for Special Olympics here in Abu Dhabi, including the Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport who has taken the time to join us in support of our athletes.
“This support is hugely important to both the organisation and our athletes and I would like to the Minister on behalf of everyone at Special Olympics Ireland.
Shaun Cassidy, Regional Director, Special Olympics Ulster said: “We are filled with pride to see so many Ulster athletes beginning their World Games experience at the Opening Ceremony. For many of our athletes, this is their first time competing on an international stage and we wish them all the best as they prepare to compete.”
The World Games will run until 21 March 2019. Team Ireland will compete in 12 different Olympic style sports. Their selection comes after four years of training and competition, and over 350 family members have made the trip to support the athletes in their endeavours.