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Thousands of athletes, hundreds of their coaches and scores of countries from around the globe - tomorrow the Special Olympics begins, the biggest sporting event in the world this year. The host country's Ireland and the opening ceremony will be attended by a number of VIPs, including Nelson Mandela. And while the Paralympics involve competitors with physical and sensory disabilities, the Special Olympics are for those with learning disabilities. James Helm, our Dublin correspondent, has been finding out how Special Olympic fever is gripping the Emerald Isle.


A rousing send off for Ireland's Special Olympics team. The athletes dressed in smart green tracksuits mingle with their families and games officials. Teams have travelled here from 160 countries - Albania to Zimbabwe - 7,000 people will take part. It's the first time this colourful event has been held outside the United States. Pat Costello is national director of Special Olympics Ireland.

Well it's about giving athletes - people with learning disabilities - an opportunity to show off their ability and that's what it's all about. It's nothing more - nothing more simple than that.

Among the Irish team is 24-year-old Lisa McNabb who can't wait for her event, the athletics, to get started.

It is a dream come true. I've been training every day at home with my mum and my dad.

Are you hoping to win?

I'm going to win, yeah, I'm going to win.


Swimming at brand new facilities in Dublin is just one of the sports which make up the Special Olympics. The event was first held in America in 1958, those taking part have a range of learning difficulties, it may not be quite as well known as the Paralympics, which is for athletes with physical disabilities, but organisers say that the Special Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world this year. The game's motto is: Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.

The games are being widely covered on television and radio here, they've captured the imagination as well as drawing support from big corporations and celebrities. An Olympic flame is being carried the length and breadth of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Delegations have even come from Afghanistan and Iraq, with each team staying in a different host town. Thousands of volunteers are helping out. John O'Donoghue is Ireland's sports minister.

Well I think the essence of the Special Olympics is to ensure that people who are educationally challenged have a chance to showcase their talents, have a chance to participate and have a chance to feel that they too belong to society. It is of immense importance in terms of ensuring that people do not feel marginalised, that people feel at the centre and that people feel that people at the centre care about them and that's what these games are all about - a celebration of human life.

Workmen are making the final preparations at Croke Park, this country's finest sporting stadium. Seventy five thousand people are expected to watch the lavish opening ceremony here, reflecting Ireland's enthusiasm for a global occasion. The Special Olympics are a unique event, sporting competition is central but not as important as celebration and a sense of achievement.

James Helm reporting from Dublin. We're joined now by Mary Davis who's chief executive of these Special Olympics. Mary Davis we heard the games there described as the biggest sporting event in the world this year, the first time they've ever been held outside America isn't it, so it must have been quite an organisational challenge?

Yes it is the first time outside the United States and when we began to organise the games initially it was a pretty daunting task but then when we broke it down into the various departments, the various work and jobs that needed to be done it became easier and for us the way that the entire island of Ireland have got behind the games and supported it, the whole concept of the games has swept the entire country like nothing before.

Well in fact I was in Armagh in Northern Ireland yesterday and I saw the Australian team that Armagh is hosting out on the streets there - they were being waved at and smiled at by all the locals. But then the games haven't been without controversy have they - I mean there are allegations that all the money that's been spent on this jamboree - 30 odd million euros - that could have been better spent, some would say, improving services for those with learning disabilities?

Well I think that the idea of staging the games in Ireland is a very positive one and I think the benefits would far outweigh anything negative. And I do understand the very serious challenges that are out there in relation to people with disabilities and people with learning disabilities and we all understand that there are acute needs which everybody is familiar with. But I think that staging the games in Ireland will show just the abilities of people with a learning disability and I think this will help then to highlight the plight and the needs of people and the challenges and I think that it will help in a very positive way to overcome those.

Yeah but the Irish sport's minister - John O'Donoghue - was saying in that report that it's all about celebration but there isn't much to celebrate for those with learning disabilities who lack respite care or day centres or residential places, what good are games to them?

Well if the games can highlight the different needs I think that that's really, really important and I have never seen so much written in the press or spoken about in the media than there has been around the words Special Olympic Games in terms of the various needs of people with disability. So the games have helped in a very, very positive way to highlight those needs and to bring people's attention also to the fact that these people have a lot of abilities and they are capable of taking their place in society in exactly the same as everybody else's and they should be given the chance and they should be given the opportunity and there should be equality and they should have the right to an education and they should have the right to work. And what the games are doing is it's highlighting that because it's showing the world the possibilities and how able these people are.

Well the Australian team were certainly being warmly welcomed by the people of Armagh yesterday as I saw on the streets of the city. Mary Davis from the Special Olympics thank you very much indeed.

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