The eyes of the world may be on Brazil tonight for the kick-off of the football World Cup but in Ireland another very special opening ceremony will see young athletes from other disciplines realising their own sporting dreams on the global stage with the beginning of the Special Olympics Ireland Limerick Games.
And among the participants will be a 241-strong delegation of Team Ulster athletes joining a total of 1,500 competing from across Ireland.
Over the course of the next few days the athletes will compete in 14 sports, including athletics, aquatics, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, equestrian, football, golf, gymnastics, kayaking, pitch & putt and table tennis.
Thousands of spectators are expected to turn out to cheer them on in venues right across the city.
For those keen to sample a bit of the Olympic spirit, a special Law Enforcement Torch Run leaves Belfast City Hall shortly after 9.30am this morning, with 20 local athletes, alongside Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr and four PSNI officers leading the Flame of Hope to Belfast Central Station, where around 150 competitors will set off for Limerick.
“The Limerick Games are set to be one of the biggest sporting events of the year and we are proud to have such a strong delegation of Team Ulster athletes taking part,” says Shaun Cassidy, regional director of Special Olympics Ulster.
“The Games in Limerick will provide a real opportunity for hundreds of local athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete on a national stage.
“For many of our athletes, this will be their first time competing at this level of competition, having trained and worked hard for many years. To reach this level is a real achievement.”
Tonight’s opening ceremony will see a parade on Limerick’s O’Connell Street, followed by an event in the People’s Park. Three full days of competition will follow, with a closing ceremony on Sunday.
As the buzz builds, we caught up with three local athletes and their families who shared their excitement at what it means to take part in this massive sporting event.
Jonathan (10), a gymnast at Salto Special Olympics Club in Lisburn, is the youngest gymnast from Northern Ireland to be competing in the games this weekend.
The Ballinderry boy, a pupil of Rowandale Integrated Primary in Moira, was born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. As a result he is around half the mental age that he should be.
His adoptive parents, Sue and David McCartney, both 60, have encouraged him through the Special Olympics programme and have been thrilled by how much he has benefitted from it, increasing in confidence and self-esteem.
"Jonathan was in year four at school but could barely read or write," says Sue, who has been a foster mum for 30 years. "Because he found things difficult he thought he was dumb and would call himself stupid and rubbish. It made him scared to try things.
"When he joined the Special Olympics in Salto the coach spotted very early that he had talent and they have been brilliant with him.
"The boost to his self-esteem has been amazing. He has improved in school and it has helped him to believe that he can do things."
Jonathan cleaned up with six gold medals in last year's regional final to qualify for the Ireland Games.
He has been the British Gymnastics Disability Under-12 Champion for the past two years and trains with the GB team.
"He is getting very excited about the games and we are hoping he gets a medal as he will be very disappointed if he doesn't," says Sue.
‘I’m not as nervous as I was, and it has helped me make more friends’
Carole (37), from Monkstown, only started playing table tennis eight years ago and already has a clutch of gold and silver medals, including two at world level.
A natural talent shone through almost immediately when she took up the sport and within just a few years Carole had made the Ulster team to compete in her first Special Olympics Ireland Games in 2010, where she won two gold medals.
Her success qualified her for the World Games in Athens in 2011 where she competed with Team Ireland against 33 other international players to take home gold and silver medals. She works at craft making in the Alternative Angles Project in Newtownabbey and lives with her partner Robert Sills (44), a car park attendant in Monkstown.
Carole, who has a mild learning disability, is a member of Abbots Cross Special Olympics Club in Newtownabbey, and has been training hard for the games.
“It’s a big weekend and I’m very excited and nervous, but you just have to go with the flow,” she says.
“It is great to win a medal and hopefully I will get gold but I don’t know, I will just have to wait and see.”
Discovering the joy of table tennis at such a high competitive level has, she says, transformed her life in many ways.
Her learning difficulty means that she finds it hard to concentrate and table tennis has enabled her for the first time to gain a level of focus which she hasn’t been able to find in many other areas of her life.
“It has built up my confidence,” she says. “I’m not just as nervous now as I used to be and it has helped me to make more friends.”
Carole is supported by her parents, Victor and Vivienne, who will be travelling with her to Limerick today.
“When Carole went to the World Games in Athens there were 77 countries represented and meeting so many different nationalities and being away from home for the first time was a huge experience for her,” says mum Vivienne.
“Competing in the Special Olympics really has completely changed her. She has a lot more confidence than she ever had.
“While her lack of concentration has made life difficult for her she seems to be able to master it for table tennis, which is fantastic.
“If she does well this weekend she is hoping to get the chance to represent Ireland at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles next year which would be amazing for her.”
‘I’ve never seen Sarah as excited and full of fun’
Clifford (51) has seen a transformation in his daughter Sarah (13) and many other young people through the setting up in 2008 of the Newtownabbey Racers Special Olympics Club.
Clifford, who is chair of his local Down’s Syndrome Parents Support Group, is one of the founding members of the club which very quickly took off in the area.
Sarah, who has Down’s Syndrome, was just six when she joined, and this weekend is competing in her first Special Olympics in the 50m run and the standing long jump events. She is one of a group of five athletes travelling to Limerick from the club as part of Team Ulster.
“We decided to set up the club because there was nothing for young people in the area and we met with people from the Special Olympics and decided to go ahead and see how it would work out,” says Clifford.
“It has just gone from strength to strength and from starting off with around 10–15 athletes it is now booming with over 50.
“The young people get so much out of it. The change in Sarah’s confidence and self-belief is amazing.
“When she started and you asked her to do certain actions she cowered in the corner and didn’t want to take part.
“Now she jumps into everything without hesitation. I’ve never seen her as excited as she has been this week building up to the games.
“It means so much to her. She is not competitive, she doesn’t care if she wins, for Sarah when she crosses the line her arms go in the air and she has won, it’s about the enjoyment and she has so much fun.
“She has made a new friend, Laura from Fermanagh, who is the same age and who she would never have met if it hadn’t been for the Special Olympics.”
Clifford, a school caretaker, and his wife Caroline (49), a paramedic, also have a son Stuart (16), and the family are looking forward to the big event.
“All the young people want is to enter into the spirit of the games. The sport will be competitive and we will prepare our athletes for it,” adds Clifford.
“There will be long days on the track and at night there will be entertainment and these young people are up on the dancefloor at the first note and stay there until they are dragged off. It’s the best fun you’ve ever had.”
Helping people to be their best
- 241 Ulster athletes will compete at the Special Olympics Ireland Limerick Games
- The All-Ireland Special Olympics Games take place every four years. They were last held in Belfast in 2006
- Special Olympics is a charity that provides year-round sports training to athletes with intellectual disabilities
- Some 2,043 athletes are registered with Special Olympics Ulster, with plans to recruit 100 new athletes per year for the next four years
- Special Olympics Ulster currently has a network of 92 clubs across Ulster and its work is supported by a network of 5,855 volunteers, with plans to recruit and train 150 new volunteers each year for the next four years
- The organisation currently has 973 coaches active in the programme on an annual basis, with plans to train 100 coaches each year for the next four years