On March 31, 1999, Ireland is selected as the location for the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games. It is the first time the event has been staged outside the United States. The organising committee, which is formed in 1999 following the success of the bid, is chaired by entrepreneur Denis O’Brien. The chief executive is Mary Davis.
The Games are hosted in Dublin, with participants staying in 177 towns, cities and villages and the Aran Islands in the lead up to the Games before moving to Dublin for the events. Events are held from June 21-29, 2003 at many venues including Morton Stadium, the Royal Dublin Society, the National Basketball Arena, all in Dublin. Croke Park serves as the central stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, even though no competitions take place there. Belfast is the venue for roller skating events at the King’s Hall, as well as the Special Olympics Scientific Symposium held on June 19-20.
Approximately 7,000 athletes from 150 countries compete in the Games in 18 official disciplines and three exhibition sports. The participants from Kosovo are the region’s first team at an international sporting event. A 12-member team from Iraq receives special permission to attend the games, despite ongoing war in their home nation. This is the largest sporting event held in 2003.
The opening ceremony is held in Croke Park and features an array of stars and is hosted by Patrick Kielty. The ceremony is officially opened by President of Ireland Mary McAleese and attended by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Performances include U2, The Corrs and the largest Riverdance troupe ever assembled on one stage. There are 75,000 athletes and spectators in attendance at the opening ceremonies. Irish and international celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jon Bon Jovi walk with the athletes, with Muhammad Ali as a special guest and Manchester United and Republic of Ireland football player Roy Keane taking the athletes oath with one of the Special Olympians. Nelson Mandela officially opens the Games.
The Games Flame is lit at the culmination of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, in which more than 2,000 members of the Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland participate. This is a series of relays carrying the Special Olympics Torch, the “Flame of Hope,” from Europe to the Games’ official opening.
The 2003 Games are the first to have their opening and closing schemes broadcast on live television, and Raidió Teilifís Éireann provides extensive coverage of the events through their ‘Voice of the Games’ radio station which replaces RTÉ Radio 1 on medium wave for the duration of the event. There is also a nightly television highlight programme. A daily newspaper, the Games Gazette, was published for each day of the Games.
Among the activities carried out during the Games are thorough medical checks on the athletes, some of whom have previously undiagnosed conditions uncovered, as some of the athletes come from countries with limited medical facilities or have difficulty communicating their symptoms.
Among the contributors to the Games is the Irish Prison Service. Prisoners from Mountjoy Prison, Midlands Prison, Wheatfield Prison and Arbour Hill Prison construct podiums and make flags, towels, signs, benches and other equipment.