A night to remember for Special Olympians

By Paul BradleyBBC Scotland at the Special Olympics in Greece

The heat outside the ancient Panathanaiko Stadium is immense and matched only by the patience of the athletes and coaches.

Some have already succumbed to the fierce temperature and an unfortunate bout of sickness and it is sad that the GB team will not be complete as they march into the opening ceremony of the 2011 Special Olympic World Games in Athens.

The venue is a truly stunning location known locally as Kallimarmon, with reference to the marble that was used to construct what was the site of the first Olympic Games of the modern era.

The atmosphere is one of joy and pride as cheers rise for each of the 180 countries taking part.

The welcome is warm and rapturous and it is the turn of the crowd to exercise some patience.

It takes some considerable time, almost two hours, for all of the athletes and coaches to take their seats.

But it's surely worth the wait. The competitors have trained long and hard for four years to earn selection.

Inside the stadium, the different outfits from each nation create a wonderful map of colour.

Not an image of any one country, but of the world as a whole, and forms a kind of ancient Greek mosaic.

Not unexpectedly, the largest cheer of the night is saved for the 400 athletes from the host nation and, as they complete the ranks, everyone's staying power is rewarded.

There was a simple yet touching moment as the 200 escorts to the athletes leave the walkway that runs along the centre of the velodrome-like structure, with bowing 'we're not worthy' gestures.

And that emotion continued in the various speeches from the dignitaries and artists present.

GB gymnast Omar Haddad
Omar celebrates as Stevie Wonder reads his name out

"I think we're home," said Dr Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics international organization.

A tribute to the late Dr Shriver's mother, Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, who was the founder of the Special Olympics movement, was highlighted when a selection of global ambassadors took to the stage to share with everyone a single achievement that they had accomplished after gaining confidence from their participation in the programme.

One athlete was proud to have been the best man at his brother's wedding, while another was actually getting married herself.

Then the entertainment started in earnest. World superstar Stevie Wonder opened with 'Sir Duke' and the dancing commenced.

At one point, the award-winning musician shared the stage with Vanessa Williams for a duet and spoke warmly about the achievement and potential of all of the athletes.

Earlier in the day, he was kind enough to give me an interview.

"When you are able to achieve as well, if not better, with having a disability compared to those who have everything and don't use it, means that more is truly not necessarily greater but less is more," said the great man.

"It's great to be here and sharing the stage with some wonderful artists and for me to see some of the games, they are the true stars of the show, and of the world."

I asked what his message to the athletes would be and he replied: "Oma mesa", which is a Greek motto of the games and means 'I'm in'.

While on the stage, Wonder shouted out a number of names of athletes from various countries and it was a proud moment for Omar Haddad, a gymnast from Widnes, as his name rang out.

'Superstition' wound up the 20-minute set but there was more to come, including a re-enactment of the ancient Greek story of the Odyssey.

The ceremony was perhaps a tad over-long and a few more of the British athletes were taken to hospital suffering from the effects of the midnight 30C heat and a tummy bug.

However, all are said to be okay and are expected to start competing on Tuesday.

The less than great news is that a general strike in Athens has been called for Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Special Olympics is aware of the expected general strikes and we are monitoring the situation as it may impact our activities," said Kirsten Seckler, communications director for the Games.

"We are expecting minimal disruptions to our World Games."

Follow Paul's reports from the Special Olympics from 25 June - 4 July on Reporting Scotland, BBC One Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland 92-95 FM and 810 MW and online.

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