August Issue 2003
I Can, I Will
“It is an honour to have the Pakistanis as our guests.” “We are privileged to have been given the opportunity to host Pakistan.” “Friends for life…” When was the last time Pakistanis travelling to the west — and that too en masse — heard such accolades? Was there ever a time when an entire town, 14000 strong — man, women and child alike — wept to see its Pakistani guests leave? And how often is it that those usually existing on the fringe of life — the intellectually and physically challenged — are transformed into heroes and stars?
That was the story of the Special Olympics World Games 2003.
That, and so many more…
Almost like an epiphany, the creeping realisation as the games progressed that 17-year-old Tahir Ahmed, a cherubic, diminutive Downs Syndrome athlete, ostensibly mute, low-functioning and painfully shy, could not merely speak, but sing. The ‘limited ability’ tag went out the window as this high achiever won not just three medals, but also the hearts of everyone who met him, becoming in the process the SOP’s poster boy.
There is the almost surreal saga of the athlete from Uganda who as a three-year-old child saw his father murder his mother, fled to the jungle and was adopted by a group of African green monkeys, with whom he lived for three years. John Ssaybunnya knew no other way of life but that of the primates, until he was discovered by a local villager and rehabilitated by members of an African charitable foundation. The subject of extensive scientific research, now a wiry, sprightly football player, John proudly represented his country at the 2003 games.
And there was the Irish athlete, Eithne Gormley, who at age 54 and in her first World Games, notched up five gold medals in all the rhythmic gymnastic events she participated in.
For Pakistan’s 60 athletes, it was a tale of triumph from start to finish, manifest most tangibly in the 89 medals — 40 of them gold — they brought home.
No small achievement that, but the medals were just one element of the many victories scored at the games. And it is those that are really worth their weight in gold.
It was the first time the games — begun in 1968 by JFK sibling, Eunice Kennedy Shriver — had left American shores, making their way to the ‘emerald isle,’ Ireland. Although it had bid to host the games, for the tiny country the prospect must have been daunting.
Consider the statistics: 7000 special athletes from 150 countries around the globe, accompanied by their respective delegations; in addition, families, friends and a constellation of stars descending upon the island for a period of up to two weeks, all of whom needed to be housed, fed and transported to and from the numerous venues at which the 27 sporting events featuring in the 2003 games were being held. And because of the nature of the athletes, a vital prerequisite: a battalion of medics on call every moment, each day. And translators, guides, information technology personnel and endless other individuals required for endless other tasks.
In fact, that was just the climax of a journey which for the Irish began eight years ago when they won the bid to host the games. Although the preparations began almost immediately thereafter — including the planning and construction of assorted sporting sites and entertainment venues — it was two years ago that the nation really moved into high gear to ready itself for the monumental challenge that lay ahead.
From inception, sizeable manpower was required, and there were calls for volunteers. Judging by the response, every able-bodied Irish man and woman offered his/her services. Finally, after a screening process, 30,000 were selected. For two years they gave up valuable slices of time, often travelling huge distances, to be trained to do the job they were allocated. And for the duration of the games they virtually gave up their lives for the cause.
It didn’t matter who they were: lawyers, doctors, professors, politicians or janitors, or what age — from 15 to 75. They cooked, cleaned, swept, chauffeured — and smiled, cheered and wept with emotion right through the weeks.
And so, before the games had even begun, a major victory had been scored: that of the sublimity of the human spirit.
For Pakistan’s athletes and the accompanying delegation, the journey to the Special Olympics also began several years ago. It was an arduous one.
It started with the Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP) officials identifying from among the 7000 athletes registered with the SOP, potential candidates for the eight disciplines they would be competing in in the World Games.
There were play-offs, first at the city, then at the regional level and finally at the national games. The athletes selected from these went on to participate in five two-week-long camps held in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. This comprised transporting the athletes from the various cities of Pakistan they hailed from, housing and feeding them and conducting rigorous training regimens in each discipline. Along the way some athletes were compelled to drop out, due to injury, illness or family problems. Replacements had to be identified. The selection process continued virtually until the eve of departure. And that was just the beginning.
The next phase was an equally challenging undertaking, considering the logistics involved in assembling medical and sports kits and gear for each athlete according to their need and discipline, and psychologically readying them — many of whom had never ventured beyond their respective towns but for the camps — for the long journey that lay ahead.
On June 14, the SOP delegation departed from Islamabad for Ireland. Weary and with some trepidation the team landed in Dublin several hours — and delays — later, only to be whisked away to Balbriggan, the quaint little seaside town that had won the bid to host the Pakistan contingent in the run-up to the games.
The host town experience proved idyllic. In the five days in Balbriggan, fears were dispelled and anxieties shed. Duly fortified — and all the richer for the wealth of human kindness their hosts had showered upon them — the Pakistan team made its way to Dublin for the games.
Lodged in the heart of the city in the dorms of the historic, 16th century Trinity College, the at first bewildered athletes gradually made themselves comfortable — and prepared themselves for the Opening Ceremonies on June 21. And to say the event rivalled the inauguration of the Olympics, would be an understatement.
The Irish had pulled out all the plugs: 70,000 flag-waving, cheering onlookers crammed the Croke Park stadium as the 150 teams marched, in their respective nation’s colours, into the stadium. Each one received wild applause. It made no difference if there were 1256 athletes (USA) or three (some of the Caribbean islands). Some (Iraq and Afghanistan) got standing ovations. And once everyone was seated, the party began.
One by one, the stars — a galaxy of them — made their way to the stage. A frail but feisty Nelson Mandela shadow-boxed with the legendary Mohammed Ali. The President and Prime Minister of Ireland lent the proceedings substance. The Kennedy clan, Special Olympics matriarch Eunice Kennedy Shriver, son (and current president) Tim, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver Schwarzenegger and Sargent Shriver demonstrated their unwavering commitment to the cause. James Bond — Pierce Brosnan, Hollywood flavour of the month, Colin Farrel (who escorted the Pakistan team into the stadium), a beaming Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose film, Terminator 3, was set for release in Ireland) and Heather Locklear glammed up the stage with assorted sports stars (among them gymnast Nadia Comenici) and celebrities. Bono and U2, Jon Bon Jovi and the Corrs serenaded the crowd, and the Riverdancers, drummers and magnificent fireworks display ignited the festivities.
But through the glitz there was no mistaking who the real stars were that night — and everyone present knew it. The athletes sang, danced, interacted with one another, and for that brief moment in time were made to feel ‘special’ in the most exalted sense of the word.
In the following days, once the games had begun, it was all sweat, tears and jubilation. This was competition at its healthiest, at its best. And everyone came away a winner.
The Pakistani aquatics team competed alongside Indian swimmers, Palestinian athletes high-fived Israeli ones, everyone exchanged their country’s caps and badges with everyone else, and when one runner laboured to reach the finish line even as all the others had long crossed it, all eyes focused only on his heroic struggle, all hands clapped in unison to cheer him on.
It was moments like these, innumerable ones, that brought alive the 2003 games’ slogan, ‘share the feeling.’ Pakistan’s star shone among the brightest in that galaxy of 7000. Deservedly. It was pure magic to watch the diminutive 12-year-old Reema Akram cross the finish line first, not once, but twice, in different athletics events, edging out among others by a convincing lead the magnificient African runners, twice her size and age. The million watt smile that lit up her hitherto sombre face spoke volumes for the distance she had travelled, in more ways than one. There was magic too in how, in the last and perhaps most closely watched match of the event, Pakistan’s men’s basketball team snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the final, and that too against Ireland, the home team, to win the gold.
And in how Pakistan’s bocce team — a sport devised for ‘low ability’ athletes which is a recent adition to the disciplines adopted by the SOP — brought home 21 medals. In how Ali Amir Sabir, another stellar athlete, garnered the gold to take home to his pregnant wife. And in how 10-year-old Saadia Batool, from a backwater in Jhang, and Monica Thomas, a resident of Karachi’s Darul Sukoon, distinguished themselves by medal-winning performances in aquatics and athletics.
In fact, each athlete represented a tale of courage and success, embodied perhaps most poignantly in tiny Sana Ahmed who saw the final of the women’s basketball through to the end without indicating that she was in pain. Rushed to the hospital after close of play, she was conspicuous by her absence on the victory stand as her team took the silver.
It was not just on account of their haul of medals that the Pakistan contingent routinely featured in all the Irish publications throughout the games. They were singled out for their spirit, their grooming, the meticulously designed track outfits each sported — even if the girls were somewhat at a disadvantage because of the ‘cover-up’ dress code ordained in the land of the pure — and for their “impeccable behaviour” and “wonderful self-confidence.” High praise in any event, but for a group of individuals challenged by both disability and circumstance, this was the ultimate victory.
It was a victory which owed to a variety of factors, key among which were sponsors — assorted multinationals, government corporations and individuals. A welcome addition to the SOP’s support structure came by way of Pakistan’s foreign service. The Pakistan ambassador to Ireland, Riffat Iqbal, Deputy High Commissioner, Shaukat Mukaddam and the Pakistan Consul General in Manchester, Salahuddin Choudhry, spurred on the home team by visiting all the sporting venues the athletes were playing at, and offering any services that were required. But ultimately no victory would have been possible, were it not for that most philanthropic group of individuals that constitute the Special Olympics Pakistan. Spearheaded by SOP chairman Saeed Ahmed, who manages to pull multitudes of rabbits out of hats — or in this case flowing resources, without which the SOP would have been a non-starter, energised manifold by the organisation’s secretary general, Ronak Lakhani, who has been described as its “moving spirit,” and substantially bolstered by co-chairpersons Mahfooz Elahi and Anis-ur-Rehman (who oversee the Islamabad and Punjab programmes respectively), the SOP also comprises a regiment of committed, dynamic coaches — both men and women — many of whom work on an entirely voluntary basis. It is their hands-on involvement with the athletes that propels them forward, from their first faltering steps to the final dash to victory. But it is in the race that lies the actual triumph.
That is what the Special Olympics is all about: changing lives through sport and competition, inclusion and integration.