Eight golds and a bronze for Team Ireland on day one of Abu Dhabi Special Olympics
Leaping like a salmon at the backpost, football captain Willie McGrath sent the Irish team and support into ecstasy on day where Shane Ross hailed the purity of the Special Olympics compared to some other “politicised” and “diluted” high level sports.
And then there was the important matter of eight gold medals and a bronze on Day One across Swimming and Bocce.
Boche star, Richard Currie (23) from Tyrone predicted last week that he’d be winning the biggest prize.
“I’m so happy, I could jump up and down all day,” he said.
The UAE and US, the Irish had by a distance the largest travelling support and were the only nation other than the hosts to have volunteers helping with the running of the Abu Dhabi Games.
And speaking to Independent.ie, Sports Minister Ross praised the values on show.
“They’re here to compete, they’re here to participate, they’re here to be sporting and they’re here to represent their country,” the Minister said.
“When sport becomes political it becomes diluted in its value, there’s none of that here there’s just a unity of purpose to have a good time.
“Unfortunately sport elsewhere has become politicised to an extent which is a great pity, it shouldn’t happen.
“You see the drugs controversy which Ireland has been leading the charge against, against drug taking by athletes and that is obviously an abomination in terms of sport. Sport is not meant to be about that.
“What we have here is something completely different, free of all that controversy, not contaminated, it’sjust so good, so refreshing, so joyous, it’s a celebration,” he added.
And while participation is key out here, competition is still fierce, evident by the celebrations of McGrath and the footballers sprinted over to a stand full of Irish support after a late, late, dramatic finish sealed victory over Estonia in their first game of the tournament.
But after those moments to savour, it was then all business as the team look to navigate a tricky top division.
Asked how it felt to score the winning goal for his country in the Special Olympics, McGrath said simply that it was “grand” as he set his sights on a gold medal.
“I feel good, we got three points, we needed to get three points today,” he said.
“I was just only waiting for [the ball] to come, but I didn’t know it was going to come straight to me.”
Corkman, Wayne O’Callaghan (21) was focused on winning the next game.
“We’re pushing ourselves up, we’re hoping to be first or second in the world, we’re pushing for that gold medal.”
But the final moments were a little too much for his mother Carol and girlfriend Shauna.
“It was just relief when the goal went in…nailbiting then when [the ball] came down here,” Carol said.
And just a stones throw away from where all this was going on, Chelsea legend Didier Drogba was around meeting some of the teams.
Asked about what these games meant to him, the Ivorian said he was delighted to be supporting the athletes but went on to say “we are not supporting them, they are hosting us”.
“It’s amazing for us to be here, I’m really proud of them.”
Drogba – who also has his own foundation – spoke of the importance of sport to inclusivity.
“I’m really proud, because everything we do is to help people and to improve and promote inclusion, so it’s important for them to be here.
“Sport is an amazing ambassador for peace, for health, and when you see people coming from different countries, celebrating the game, it’s amazing,” he said.
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