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Henry Mckean: Stifling, and hit by strikes, but this Special Olympics is so very special

WE all look back with fond memories at the 2003 Special Olympics in Croke Park eight years ago -- but could the Greeks, in the midst of an economic crisis, come close to matching it?

They have come extremely close.

The 13th Special Olympics opening ceremony here in Athens was a sensational experience for everyone involved. The event probably cost more than an IMF Greek loan repayment, but it was worth it.

A spectacular show featuring Stevie Wonder with a Homer Odyssey theme of Greek mythology, a river-of-fire torch relay, and a chariot of the sun flying above the stadium. Even though Greek self-esteem is down in the dumps, the Hellenic republic's pride is very much alive and well.

The stifling 38C heat has made it difficult for the 126 Irish athletes who spent 17 hours on a ferry coming back from one of the host islands of Rhodes -- Greece has 1,400 islands. There are 200 volunteers and over 400 family and friends in Athens, but people are beginning to acclimatise.

There are 7,000 athletes from 180 countries, 2,500 coaches and over 25,000 volunteers.

The spectacular show was four hours long, with a Greek mythology theme at the original Panathenaikon Olympic stadium. Built in 566BC and made of marble, it is also the home of the modern Olympics, begun in 1896.

Stevie Wonder's performance was one of the many highlights that brought the Irish athletes to their feet -- and some Irish volunteers, who had to raise ¤3,200 to work two weeks for free, cried with joy.


Former rugby player Keith Wood, patron of Special Olympics Ireland, who led the Irish delegation in the athletes' parade, said: "It was absolutely incredible, it's hot and sweaty and everyone is smiling.

"It's stunning, wonderful and Stevie Wonder was fantastic, just walking in there and seeing the joy on those athletes' faces ... to be involved in this is truly extraordinary."

I met Keith just before he went into the stadium and I ended up getting caught up in the moment and found myself in the middle of the athletes' parade waving to 46,000 people.

I was hit by a sudden thud of emotion which overwhelmed me as I finally realised what the Special Olympics movement is all about.

It's about bringing respect, happiness, genuine compassion, self-confidence and, through sport, bringing an equal position in society.

The Special Olympics oath is "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt". But most athletes I have seen competing do want to bring home a medal -- and many will.

Maria Shriver, daughter of the founder of the Special Olympics, JFK's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, described her feelings. "It's very emotional and beautiful, I think the athletes get the respect that they deserve and get to compete on the same ground as athletes before them."

The Irish medal haul has already started, with talented swimmer Aisling Beacom, from Wicklow town, winning Ireland's first medal, taking bronze in the 800m freestyle in front of hundreds of screaming Irish supporters.

Aisling said: "It's amazing to win any medal and I actually thought I was going to get a whipping and I actually broke a record." Aisling Beacom's mum, and trainer, Pam said: "I'm over the moon, extremely proud of her, absolutely delighted, she took a minute and a half off her time, I'm absolutely thrilled."

Second silver has gone to Mary Gavin, who won 100 metres backstroke. Today, there is a two-day strike, so no public transport, and volunteers are struggling to get to venues, but athletes are unaffected.

On July 1, Aisling has another chance of a medal and will compete in the open water swim.

This is the first time his competition has been held and the whole of Ireland will be cheering her on.

Henry Mckean is reporting from the Special Olympics in Athens all week on Newstalk and presents Under The Covers With Henry McKean on Saturday at 8am on Newstalk 106-108fm