The Specials!


The Saudi Arabia team ceili swinging on Croke Park pitch to Riverdance on a Saturday night! The legendary Muhammad Ali, frail but smiling and waving, doing a lap of the grounds in a ‘pope-mobile’. The Olympic flame being carried in relays into the grounds to a roar that reached the stars!

The atmosphere for the spectacular opening ceremony of the Special Olympics by the gentleman of the world, Nelson Mandela, is impossible to describe.

There was a great moment for the ten members of West Belfast’s ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ drama group. For the past two months they had been preparing for this day, painting huge coloured discs and practicing for an amazing scena, ‘Solstice’. Dressed like druids (in robes decorated with black and white Celtic designs) they, and hundreds others, filed into the grounds to a rising crescendo of drum-rolls as a huge luminous sun was slowly raised on hoists. And when it reached the pinnacle of the stage the druids opened up their costumes and hoods and burst into colourful life as dancing flora and undulating grasses. The surprise was breathtaking and many of the audience were in tears.

Imagine your son or daughter to be participating in the largest sporting event of the year, involving 7000 athletes from 166 countries, 3000 coaches and 28,000 delegates, in 21 different sports spread across eight days of competitions televised worldwide, and you get a feeling of the sense of pride that parents must feel.

But imagine how greater that pride must be for families of participants whose son or daughter, brother or sister, had, through the lottery that is fate, been born into this world with disadvantages and learning disabilities. Despite the limitations society and our culture once placed on them, these people are can compete in their own Olympics whose ethos is reflected in its wonderful oath, “Let me win. But if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.”

It has only been within a generation that the general public has slowly learnt and appreciated what parents of those with a range of learning disabilities have known all along. That is, there is something ‘special’ about such people – an aura, an innocence, an individuality – that elicits love and commitment from those closest to them, and can teach those of us with egos and ambition something about humility and sacrifice.

Just being in the vicinity of a special person can be a justly humbling experience. I have written here before about Colum Quigley who was born with Downs Syndrome and died in Canada in February 2002, having immigrated to North America ten years earlier to be with his brother Michael and wife Helen. He was a very funny and affectionate man who sat and held my hand when I came off the stage in Toronto, having given a lecture on the twentieth anniversary of the hunger strike. After his death there was a tribute held for him in Dublin and in a eulogy his sister said: “All he ever wanted to do was to love you and be loved by you … and he brought out the best in everyone who had the great fortune to meet him.”

And that is true. It is a privilege to be befriended by a special person.

And now, thanks to the efforts of a few, the world recognises and supports their right to participate with their peers internationally in the field of sports.

The story of the Special Olympics is well known. They were founded by Eunice Kennedy in 1968 - whose own sister, Rosemary, has been institutionalised for over sixty years - and have been held every four years thereafter in the USA. This is the first time they have been held outside of the USA.

However, there is another side of the story that isn’t often reported.

Eunice’s parents, Joe and Rosemary Kennedy, had nine children. Three of their boys were to die violent deaths: one in war and two, President John F Kennedy and Robert, at the hands of assassins. The eldest daughter Rosemary was shy, had a low IQ and may have suffered from dyslexia. She was sent to special schools and by the time she was twenty-one was prone to mood swings, tantrums and outbursts of violence.

In 1942, without telling anyone or asking his wife’s permission, Joe Kennedy arranged for Rosemary to have a frontal lobotomy, an operation which was suppose to ‘cure’ people with behavioural problems, and which was then still experimental. It was a disaster. She was left permanently disabled and was spirited away to a sanatorium, where she remains to this day, though in the 1950s the family told people that Rosemary had given up her material possessions and become a nun in Wisconsin.

There are those who argue that there was very little wrong with Rosemary other than that she had a few learning difficulties, and that the real reason she was operated on was to cure her of her alleged wildness – including, running around with men – and was an embarrassment to old Joe who would not let anything, even a daughter, get in the way of his ambition to see his son John elected President of the USA.

Where the story becomes malicious is the allegation that what actually inspired Eunice Kennedy was the desire to assuage Kennedy family guilt over what happened to Rosemary.

The story is worth telling because, I think, once again, it says something about human nature, the tendency to cynicism and misanthropy, the reluctance to accredit goodness and charity to a woman who has done sterling work in organising and inspiring others to support the ethic of the Olympics for special people. In Croke Park on Saturday night Eunice Kennedy was given a standing ovation when she took the podium.

If the sheer ebullience of the opening ceremony is anything to go by, our special friends can show us what the spirit of friendly competitiveness in sport is all about: love of one’s fellow human beings and sharing with them life and excitement.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison