Will the disabled Olympics cure modern Ireland's ills?
Louis Walsh, the Irish pop impresario best known for clogging the charts with boy bands, got himself into trouble over the weekend by breaking a national taboo: he expressed some scepticism about the forthcoming Special Olympics.
Walsh sparked a storm of controversy by suggesting that the Special Olympics are ‘little more than an ego trip’ for the organisers and that the Games were ‘not nearly as important as a lot of people like to think they are’ (1). ‘It’s a lot like a state funeral on television, you know, people will watch a bit here and there, but I don’t think people are interested in it really’, said Walsh. ‘They certainly won’t be glued to it. They aren’t going to be interested in who wins what.’ (2)
Three years ago, Ireland’s Sunday Independent columnist Mary Ellen Synon was forced out of her job after questioning (in an admittedly crass way) the idea that the Paralympics had any equivalence to the real Olympics. So it was hardly surprising that Walsh’s comments provoked a backlash. Formula One boss Eddie Jordan, a member of the Special Olympics organising committee, told the Sunday Independent: ‘I’ve seen the tears and joy this has given to people. Ireland has always been renowned for being a sharing and giving nation, and I’m delighted to be associated with that.’ (3)
John O’Donoghue, Ireland’s minister for sport, insists that Walsh has got it wrong and that the Special Olympics have caught the public imagination: ‘I really think it is gravely disappointing that a person in his position should make comments like that…if he thinks people aren’t interested and are just on ego trips for this he is in for one great surprise – the entire country is behind this.’ (4)
But to my mind, the Westlife boss has redeemed himself for some of his crimes against pop music by expressing a truth that few in Ireland dare to say out loud. The Irish government boasts that the Special Olympics – the first ever to take place outside the USA – is the largest sporting event in the world in 2003 and the biggest ever to take place in Ireland.
In logistical terms, this is correct. Some 7000 athletes from 155 countries will participate in the 10-day event, and about 30,000 volunteers have been mobilised. The three-hour opening ceremony at Croke Park in Dublin on 21 June will be broadcast live on national TV, and will feature the likes of Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, U2, the Corrs, Samantha Mumba and Jon Bon Jovi.
But none of this disguises the fact that the sporting event currently dominating pub conversations is not the Special Olympics, but the David Beckham transfer saga. The Special Games may dominate the TV news headlines, but I have yet to hear the event come up in everyday conversation – apart from among some friends of mine worried about the onslaught of political correctness we will face over the next two weeks.
No doubt many of us will make the effort, as Louis Walsh says, to take in a few minutes of the event on TV – but more because it is seen as a worthy thing to do rather than because we are engrossed in the action. The excessive hours of coverage devoted to the event on national TV will certainly not be driven by market demand. Very few people know the names of any of the athletes, and we are unlikely to remember them once the Games are over.
It often seems that the furore around the Special Olympics has little to do with sport, and instead is being latched on to in order to promote various causes and agendas. For some, it is about promoting awareness of disability issues, currently the most fashionable cause in Irish politics. For others, it is about promoting multiculturalism.
The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism describes the Games as the largest ‘sports and multicultural event’ in the world, and claims that they will provide ‘a positive and life-enriching experience for all concerned, full of laughter and learning…. [T]he Games will offer us as a nation an opportunity to learn more about international cultures, intercultural communication and the abilities and achievements of those with a learning disability’ (5).
According to Mary Davis, chief executive of Special Olympics 2003, ‘The whole point is to raise awareness of people with disability. We want to show that these are human beings, and we should treat them the same…I think even now, before they have started, the Games have already had a profound impact on the country’ (6).
Above all, the Games seem to be about helping the Irish feel better about themselves. With the demise of the Church and most other traditional forms of authority in recent decades, genuine shared national experiences have become increasingly elusive for the Irish elite. As the economic dynamism of the Celtic Tiger era gives way to a sense of national malaise, and as exaggerated fears about alcohol abuse, street crime and social breakdown dominate public debate, the elite could do with some sense of national unity.
So although most of the Special Olympic events are taking place in and around Dublin, athletes are being dispersed to 155 towns and villages across the country in the week before the Games start – even to such far-flung destinations as the Aran Islands. This ‘host towns project’ is primarily about galvanising the whole country around the event in an attempt to boost national morale. Mary Davis claims that ‘Communities are being enlivened and enriched by the Special Olympics’ (7).
According to Senator Mary O’Rourke of the ruling Fianna Fáil party, ‘The Special Olympics is just wonderful. Every time one reads about it, sees it on television or encounters it in one’s home town or area, the athletes are like shining beacons of light. When one sees their faces, their helpers, their families and what they are doing, it raises morale and spirits.’ Such a patronising view treats these athletes, not as serious competitors, but as a travelling circus, as some kind of antidote to modern Ireland’s ills.
Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern even claims that the Special Olympics might give a boost to the peace process. ‘The experience of these Games in the past is that above all, they bring people together’, says Ahern. ‘We all know that the process of making and developing peace on this island has been difficult and painstaking…. But [our] divisions will not stop communities from coming together to welcome special athletes into their homes and into their hearts…. For that reason, these Games – in their preparation and development as well as in the events themselves – will also provide us with a unique opportunity for reconciliation.’ (8)
The Special Olympics are, in themselves, an honourable institution deserving of support. But let’s not hype them up into something they are not, for reasons that have nothing to do with sport.
(1) The Irish Times, 16 June 2003
(2) Irish Independent, 16 June 2003
(3) Sunday Independent, 16 June 2003
(4) Sunday Independent, 16 June 2003
(5) See the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism
(6) Sunday Times, 15 June 2003
(7) Sunday Times, 15 June 2003
(8) Announcement of the Council of Patrons for the Special Olympics World Games 2003, 30 February 2000, on the Department of the Taoiseach website
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