Ireland’s success and struggles in the Special Olympics

Emily Sheahan

In 2003, Ireland hosted the largest event in the world that year. 

That June, over 80,000 people watched in Croke Park as for the first time the Special Olympics World Games was held outside of the United States.

7,000 athletes with physical or intellectual disabilities gathered in Dublin to compete in what is regarded as the most successful games in Special Olympics history.

At the time, Special Olympics Ireland said: “For two weeks, as a nation, we were enthralled and inspired by the determination, bravery, skill and abilities of the Special Olympics athletes who travelled from 168 countries.”

This year, on March 22nd, the Irish team arrived back from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi clad with 86 silver, bronze, and gold medals.

Trinity College Students’ Union President-elect Laura Beston has been involved in Special Olympics Ireland as a coach as well as in support of her sister who has competed. Beston said the organisation “creates a sense of independence for many athletes”.

She said that while the organisation itself does its best to give the athletes the representation they deserve, they should be getting more airtime, especially from the national broadcaster.

“If athletes who compete in the mainstream Olympics get their event televised then why isn’t an athlete competing in the Special Olympics?” said Beston.

“A special slot on the news is merely tokenistic and, in my opinion, veers on ableism.”

“Overall, we’re failing and that’s not the fault of the individuals working on the ground,” she said. “It’s systematic and it needs to be tackled at the top to help the actual athletes and those who don’t even get to access sport.”

The Special Olympics also faces very real hurdles on an international level. US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has on March 27th proposed cuts once again to the Special Olympics as it is “not a federal programme” and doesn’t need federal backing when it can raise private contributions.

For the third year in a row, she has called for the elimination of funding to Special Olympic events at school.

While the cuts are unlikely to happen, the move has been criticised for being an appalling attempt to “go after disabled children” by Democrats. Special Olympics Ireland currently has around 8,870 registered athletes in 14 sports. Beston believes that more athletes should be encouraged to compete in different events.

“From an athletics perspective, I always felt that there were skills that suited different events in mainstream athletics that weren’t being offered to the athletes I was training,” she added.

She said that particularly in rural areas, there is an obvious gap in terms of accessibility of both training and development of sports centres. “Ireland has great strides to make yet to claim that sport is inclusive,” said Beston.

Chief Executive of DCU Sport Ken Robinson said more focus should be put on the Special Olympics and that “sport should be the vehicle for all abilities and levels.”

He said their ‘Sport for All’ policy is a part of their strategy for their “diverse and inclusive customer base”. DCU Sport has committed to the Sport Inclusion Disability Charter established by Cara, an organisation launched at the start of this year with the aim of increasing sport and physical activity opportunities for people with disabilities in Ireland.

Robinson said the recent success of the Irish team was wonderful and it showed that the ‘legacy of 2003’ is carrying through.

Ireland’s history with the Special Olympics has in many ways been strong and vibrant, something for the country to take pride in. The huge welcome that this year’s athletes received in Dublin Airport is evidence of that.

However, like the rest of the world, it has a way to go before it can be said without doubt that people with disabilities are given fair and equal opportunities in sport.

Emily Sheahan

Image credit: Flickr