The eleventh Special Olympics World Games were spectacularly launched in Dublin last night with a stunning opening ceremony that created a carnival atmosphere to launch the 2003 renewal of the games.
Noise, colour and celebration
The home of Gaelic football, Croke Park, was transformed from a football stadium into an amphitheatre of noise, colour and celebration as delegations from 166 countries packed the North Dublin venue. The evening marked the end of a 15,000 mile journey across Europe for the Special Olympic 'Flame Of Hope', which was eventually ignited to launch the official opening of the week-long event.
Sea of colour
Amid a sea of colour, the athletes paraded around the stadium, with the late entrants to the competition, Afghanistan, leading the way. All five continents were represented, with teams and countries of various shapes and sizes accompanied in their lap of honour by representatives of the towns that had hosted them for the previous five days.
A vibrant array of flags welcomed each country's athletes to the stadium, with a warm reception for each delegation from the massive American squad right down to smaller teams such as Barbados and their four Olympians. The diversity of countries on show was demonstrated by the variety of dress, from the traditional garb of Iran, Qatar and Pakistan to the bright costumes and allure of Mauritius, Lesotho and Tajikistan.
Evening of entertainment
The introduction of the athletes was followed by an evening of entertainment that celebrated both the very best of Irish culture, and the powerful emotions of pride and joy inspired by the games themselves. A number of national and international celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan, Blackburn Rovers FC and Republic of Ireland international Damien Duff, Ireland manager Brian Kerr, Ronan Keating, Jon Bon Jovi and actor Colin Farrell and Arnold Schwarzenegger played a role in proceedings. Yet, on this occasion, their role was minor as the Olympians deservedly took the limelight and enjoyed their moment of glory.
Irish president Mary McAleese spoke about the magnitude of the occasion. "Ireland is famous for its warm welcomes, but never in the history of this country has there been a bigger and better welcome than the one prepared for the world's best special athletes. We are at the start of a week that none of us will ever forget," she said.
'If you seek courage'
Founder of the Special Olympics movement, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, asked the audience to remember the 170 million people with intellectual disabilities around the world that were unable to attend on the evening, and encouraged people worldwide to marvel at the wonder of the games. "If you seek joy, come and see the Special Olympics," she said. "If you seek courage, come and see the athletes of the Special Olympics".
'Potential for greatness'
International rock group U2 brought the crowd to their feet and climaxed their performance by introducing Nelson Mandela to a rousing reception. Addressing the athletes, Mandela stated: "You remind us of the potential for greatness that is alive in every one of us".
An epic rendition of the official anthem of the 2003 Special Olympics, "May We Never Say Goodbye", concluded the evening after the lighting of the 'Flame Of Hope' and Mandela officially declaring the games to be open. After an enthralling, awe- inspiring evening of celebration, filled with light, spirit and fanfare, the enduring memory remains the sentiment expressed in the oath taken by all the athletes which defines the meaning of these games. "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt".
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