In Ireland, the year 2003 will be remembered above all else as the year of the Special Olympics World Summer Games. Over 7,000 athletes came from some 150 countries, and they competed in 21 different sports. They were hosted beforehand in 177 communities all over Ireland, North and South. They were accompanied by 3,000 coaches and officials who ensured that the competition ran smoothly. Some 65,000 spectators attended the opening ceremony in Croke Park in Dublin. Staging the Games cost e36 million in and a further e20 million in kind in products and services. These are the cold statistics. More importantly, the Special Olympics did something else. They won the hearts of the people of Ireland. They generated and manifested a spirit of community, of goodwill and of volunteerism. Host towns came together and organised in ways that had not previously been seen. Over a thousand families generously offered accommodation and hospitality. A total of 30,000 volunteers, of all ages and backgrounds, willingly gave their talents and time to ensure that the games were an organisational success. Commercial sponsors -international, national and local showed an unparalleled generosity. The Games were supported by the Irish Government, by the British Government, by the devolved Northern Ireland Administration and by the Commission of the European Communities. There have not been too many projects that have so successfully harassed and united these four bodies! The mammoth task of organising all of this was entrusted to a Board chaired by Denis O'Brien. In turn, in 1999, the Board appointed as its Chief Executive Mary Davis, the woman whom we honour today. It was an inspired appointment.
Her background in the Special Olympics movement was well known and will shortly be outlined. Her ability to recruit, organise and motivate a professional management team eventually numbering 170, along with a huge team of volunteers could not have been known. No one in Ireland or indeed elsewhere had ever previously undertaken such a task. Mary Davis rose to the challenge. She dealt with the predictable and unpredictable. She was determined to show that the Special Olympics bring out the best in sports, the best in courage, the best in dedication, the best in teamwork and the best in joy.
Mary Davis graduated as a Physical Education Teacher from Leeds University in England and won a scholarship from there to the University of Alberta in Canada where she completed her academic studies. On returning to Ireland, she became physical education co-ordinator with St Michael's House in Dublin, an organisation catering for people with learning disabilities. While there, she became a volunteer for Special Olympics Ireland and in 1985 was Events Director for the European Special Olympics games held in Dublin. In 1989 she became National Director of Special Olympics Ireland. She has served on many Special Olympics international bodies.
Mary Davis was one of the main driving forces behind Ireland's bid to host the 2003 World Summer Games. Her track record of active involvement in the Special Olympics movement, nationally and internationally, was a major factor in Ireland's winning the 2003 Games. The commitment to people with learning disabilities which Mary Davis has shown continued when the last 2003 Olympians had gone home and the last organisational detail of the games had been dealt with. In cooperation with Special Olympics Ireland, she is working to ensure that the legacy of the 2003 games is built upon. She will see to it that there is a lasting awareness of the talents and abilities of people with a learning disability amongst the people of the island of Ireland. Special Olympics Ireland is now committed to increasing the number of athletes in its programme from 8,000 to 14,000 over the next four years. And it is committed to providing improved and increased services to its members and their families.
In recent months, over 100 commitments have been received all over the island of Ireland from people wishing to set up new Special Olympics clubs in their areas - and it is not just the people with learning disabilities who will benefit. We are all the beneficiaries. The Special Olympics have brought communities together. The athletes, showing their huge courage, dedication and discipline, appreciate their extended audience and feel good as a result. The families and carers, continuing their enormous support and faith, realise they are not alone and feel good. The volunteers, seeing the joy that their efforts bring, feel good. All have been inspired by the ideal of the Special Olympics movement: share the feeling.
In honouring Mary Davis, we recognise all those who have made the Special Olympics movement what it is today. We recognise also the contribution made by Ireland to the Year of People with Disabilities. But above all, we salute Mary Davis's work for the Special Olympics movement and wish her well in her continuing commitment to raise our awareness of the achievements of people with learning disabilities.