It tumbled repeatedly off the lips of movie stars, politicians and athletes and reverberated joyfully through the GAA’s soaring new home with a grace and enthusiasm that brought tears to the eyes of the thousands present and millions around the world who watched the TV coverage of the spectacular 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games opening ceremony.
And what a show.
Five hours of music and song, marching and dancing, hugging, cheering and waving. And at the end of it all the lighting of a flame of hope by a young athlete from Derry who had just been embraced by a man of hope, Nelson Mandela, a most special guest, who had been honored with the task of declaring the games officially open.
The fun had started long before the games.
From the dawn arrival of the first team at Dublin airport a week earlier, towns the length and breadth of Ireland’s 32 counties had rolled out the welcome mat to athletes and team officials from 160 nations.
Parties and parades under mostly sunny skies served as miniature dress rehearsals for Saturday night’s midsummer lollapalooza on a green field covered in giant white matting that was firmly pinned to the sward beneath by the dreams of 7,000 Special Olympians.
The Irish might be still a little unsure about Hollywood-style hype. But there was no shortage of hope, anticipation and yes, hype, around the country as the days and hours ticked away to the kickoff at Croker.
Of course this only served to heighten the worries of the more image conscious.
If this was indeed the biggest sporting event on the planet this year, could Ireland give the Special Olympics the kind of unveiling the games deserved?
And of course there was the weather. Would it cooperate?
The answer was a double yes. And a bit more besides.
It rained for a while about an hour before the ceremonies began, and a mostly cloudy Irish summer’s evening carried reminders of other seasons if air temperature was the only measure of comfort.
But the rain backed off on cue as if instructed by a higher power and everything else about Croke Park’s eye opener to the world was dry, warm and yes, even fuzzy, as daylight gave way to dusk and eventual 11 p.m. darkness.
As many as 85,000 people watched and took part in the opening ceremony that was officially started by President Mary McAleese and her declaration that “never in the history of our country has there been a bigger or better welcome than for these special athletes.”
More than 70,000 watched, enthralled and entranced, from the tiered grandstands that now circle three quarters of Croke Park as the opening ceremony moved through an intricate but near perfectly choreographed schedule.
Each and every spectator had been given a flag. Depending on which section of seating, the flag was a different color. The flags had been made by prisoners in Mountjoy Prison, a gift from those inside Dublin’s big house to those insiders for the night with tickets for the big show. The flags were waved freely and with gusto to greet the athletes who marched into the stadium from gates at opposite corners, one at an end of the Hogan Stand, the other at the end of the Cusack Stand.
The teams varied in size from tiny to massive. The United States, birthplace of the Special Olympics back in 1968, sent the biggest team by far. It took the bones of a half hour for the U.S. contingent to walk from the Cusack stand corner to its designated seating area on the far side of the pitch.
The U.S. team was led by boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Thirty years ago, Ali stepped into a ring in Croke Park to battle Al Blue Lewis. Ireland and this stadium were far different places now.
Sadly, too, the Parkinson’s-afflicted “Greatest” is a different man. His progress was aided by a golf cart, but from under its canopy there stretched a long saluting arm and a right hand that had stung so many fighters like a bee.
Ali’s entrance was a moment to savor. But he was not the only star in the night’s earthly firmament.
Arnold Schwarzenegger led the Austrian team; rocker Jon Bon Jovi walked with the long American line, as did actress Heather Locklear and TV reporter Maria Shriver.
Others to walk with teams included Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci, with the Romanian contingent, actor Dylan McDermott and music maestro Quincy Jones.
There was too a gaggle of Irish sports stars, including soccer players Roy Keane and Damien Duff, Kilkenny hurling legend D.J. Carey, and runners Catherina McKiernan, 1956 Olympic gold medal miler Ronnie Delaney, and “Chairman of the Boards,” Eamonn Coghlan.
But the loudest cheers were for the waving and smiling athletes. A huge roar went up for the handful who made it from Iraq and loud cheers too greeted the strong British squad.
Crowd participation only occasionally had to be encouraged from the announcers as the fired-up thousands maintained near constant applause, cheers and flag waving for the hour-long entry of all the teams.
In keeping with Special Olympics tradition, no national flags were displayed, but each country was named on a sign carried by an Irish soldier. National colors and costume were in evidence and homemade flags representing the union of participating nations and Irish host towns made it clear that it had been a good couple of weeks for the art supply business.
Ireland’s ability to provide top-class entertainment to the world has been evident for some years, but on this night it was as if a decade had been crammed into a space of minutes.
The star-studded stage show that was woven into the opening ceremony began with the Corrs and proceeded apace with the likes of Ronan Keating, Samantha Mumba, the theater group Macnas, tenor Ronan Tynan, and a reprise of the original 7-minute “Riverdance” segment that was destined to thrill global audiences.
The “Riverdance” performance, introduced by original cast dancer Jean Butler, featured the longest line of Irish dancers ever to high kick on a stage. And it brought down the house.
The house was raised again for Bono and U2, who in turn raised it for the entry on stage of Nelson Mandela.
“I regard myself immensely privileged to be at this occasion tonight,” said Mandela.
The special Olympians, the former South African president said, were “ambassadors of the greatness of humankind.”
One of the prime highlights in a night of highlights was the meeting of Mandela and Irish team member David McCauley. McCauley took the flaming torch, first lit in Athens, the last few yards to where it was used to ignite the Olympic cauldron that will burn all this week and into next.
The flame was escorted into the stadium by motorcycle officers from both the Garda Siochana and Police Service of Northern Ireland. It was a trans-world and cross-border kind of night.
With all in their places it was left to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to acknowledge the athletes, their families, the thousands of support people as well as the communities and 30,000 volunteers around Ireland who had made the first special games held outside the United States possible.
Ahern paid particular homage to the “vision, courage and foresight” of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics who herself delivered a ringing appeal for greater understanding of, and better treatment for, the millions of people around the world who daily face the reality of being intellectually challenged.
But for the few hours on a Saturday night, on the northern fringe of central Dublin, the challenge was to avoid pinching oneself.
This was not some crazy dream made up of an outlandish combination of the rich, the famous, the ordinary and extraordinary. It was as real as each competing athlete’s personal march to a level of achievement that was truly Olympian.
It was Dublin, it was Ireland, it was the entire world cheering and singing together on a rare old night in a glistening sports arena.
And the rain stopped in the nick of time.
A lucky beginning. Everything that followed was singular, spectacular and oh-so-special.