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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Sun shines on Special Olympics

By James Helm
BBC Dublin correspondent

They've even organised the weather, and in Ireland that takes some doing.

This country has taken to the Special Olympics, enjoying the chance to welcome athletes and their families from around the world, but the one thing that was beyond the skills of the organising team has turned out fine.

Irish kayaker David Dignam
There is a wide range of sports to watch
In fact, sunny and fine - allowing the sailing competition in Dublin, the golf at Portmarnock's famous course and the athletics to take place under blue skies.

In case you didn't know, those same organisers point out that this event in Dublin is in fact the biggest sporting event in the world this year.

More than 7,000 athletes have travelled to Ireland from 160 countries to take part.

The Special Olympics were founded in America in 1968 and are for people with learning difficulties (as opposed to the better-known Paralympics, whose stars have physical disabilities).

Tales of achievement

These games, taking place across Ireland's capital, represent the first time they've been held outside the US.

An athlete from Thailand was found to have glaucoma, and his eye condition, previously undetected, is now being treated
And so far, it's gone well. The Special Olympics are a colourful, even uplifting event, and Dublin is bedecked with Special Olympics flags and banners.

Ireland's TV, radio and newspapers are devoting huge chunks of airtime and column inches to tales of achievement and crowds are higher than expected.

The range of sports on offer include cycling, powerlifting, gymnastics, swimming and soccer.

The number of nations which have sent delegations is startling - even Iraq and Afghanistan managed to send teams.

At one venue, I watched the efforts of a Venezualan gymnast being applauded by the San Marino and Hong Kong teams, as part of a huge audience.

Cheering crowds

What struck me as I followed the action was not only the skills and concentration of the participants themselves, but also the non-partisan nature of it all.

UK powerlifter Gary Haynes with Muhammad Ali
There is no shortage of celebrities at the games
The mainly Irish audience, who had queued in the sun to get in, were cheering for everyone. And, boy, did they cheer.

The teams were welcomed to host towns around Ireland last week, where volunteers had worked long and hard preparing for their arrival.

At the healthy athletes centre in Dublin, participants can have free hearing, sight and other health checks.

An athlete from Thailand was found to have glaucoma, and his eye condition, previously undetected, is now being treated.

The celebrity count has been high since the lavish opening ceremony at Dublin's Croke Park on Saturday, where Nelson Mandela was a guest of honour.

More than medals

Muhammad Ali, film stars Colin Farrell and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros, Manchester United's Roy Keane and ex-Formula 1 champion Damon Hill were all spotted at various venues.

Ireland's soccer manager Brian Kerr was casting his eye over a few games.

Down at the pool, 12-year-old Liinah Bukenya treasured her gold medal, the first for her nation, Uganda, at the Special Olympics, and won in the 50 metres backstroke final.

One of the younger competitors at the games, she was pictured smiling on the front of the Irish Times.

This event, with its optimistic feel, and its emphasis on achievement and enjoyment rather than competitiveness, is about more than medals.

The games' motto, after all, is: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

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