Irish Special Olympics Volunteers talk Berlin 2023: Brian O’Callaghan

Volunteer and father of Special Olympics athlete, Brian O’Callaghan, shares his thoughts
prior to the departure.

According to the 2022 Census data, more than 700,000 people indicated that they undertook
voluntary work, and of those, nearly 300,000 people volunteered in a sporting organisation.

The 2023 World Summer Games held in Berlin between 17 th – 25 th June are the largest
inclusive sporting event in the world, featuring over 7,000 athletes from 190 nations. Team
Ireland consists of 73 athletes competing in 12 sports, supported by a team of over 60
volunteers representing all five Special Olympics Ireland regions – Connaught, Eastern,
Leinster, Munster, and Ulster.

Brian O’Callaghan is a Team Ireland volunteer and father of Special Olympics athlete, sat
down with us to share his story.
How did you start volunteering with the SOI? 

Brian: My journey with the Special Olympics started at the Ireland Games in Limerick in
2010, having just welcomed a son with Down Syndrome to the world. I made a pact with
myself that, if the games ever came back to Limerick, I would get involved and volunteer.
Looking back now, maybe it was my way of coping and ensuring that my son, Padraig, was
given every opportunity to be the best that he could be. Thankfully, the games did come
back to Limerick 4 years later, and I fulfilled my own promise and got involved. I have been
volunteering ever since and I feel very proud to be involved with the Special Olympics.

What motivated you to invest your time and energy in this and what is it that keeps you
motivated to keep going?

Brian: Initially I got involved due to my son Padraig’s Down syndrome diagnosis. I wanted to
remain as positive and upbeat as possible overcoming the initial shock. Of course now,
looking back, there was absolutely nothing to be worried about, but for me it was a way of
challenging the condition and proving that it would not hinder Padraig in any way. I am a
firm believer that everybody on this island should have the opportunity to lead a healthy
and active lifestyle, regardless of ability or disability.
After seeing how Special Olympics Ireland changes lives, it was impossible for me to walk
away. Also, I look at these athletes, their parents and coaches, and it gives me a snapshot
into the future and the potential that Padraig can realise. Maybe its slightly selfish but I find
it truly heart-warming and soul enriching and I take great pleasure in seeing that.

What does a typical day look like for you when you are at the games?

Brian: I am lucky to be part of the Media Volunteer Team at the World Games, and our role
is to tell the story of the games from the athletes, their coaches and their families point of
view. We meet, engage, celebrate and unfortunately commiserate with all athletes as they
represent their country with pride. It’s our job to tell their story, and to update all the
supporters at home and the media in attendance with schedules, results, unusual stories
and much more.
Our day starts with a team briefing over breakfast to discuss sports, locations and medal
hopefuls before heading to our allocated venue. We would then stay there for the day
ensuring we garner as much exposure for Team Ireland as possible, before returning to base
and debriefing later that evening. It’s a very busy, full-on role, but one I thoroughly enjoy.

The Berlin 2023 will be your 3rd games, can you tell us what is your very best memory
from the games and what are you mostly looking forward to this year?

Brian: These games are all about the athletes. To represent you home town, your county
and your country at anything, be it sport or otherwise, irrespective of the level, is something
that the athletes and their families can be immensely proud of. We go as volunteers to
facilitate these experiences and support them in any way we can. These athletes have
trained hard to be in peak condition when it counts, and they are competing to win.
My best memory comes from the World Games in Los Angeles in 2015, but it didn’t involve
an Irish athlete. It was on the running track at UCLA and a 100m sprint. Half way down the
straight, a young American girl tripped and fell over. What happened next blew me away as
a fellow athlete stopped mid race, helped her up and the two of them crossed the line
together arm in arm as all the other athletes applauded them. It struck me right then that
there is an honesty and integrity about the Special Olympics World games, unmatched in
any other sport or event that I have ever experienced.

How important is the support of the sponsors and the community for the volunteers and

Brian: Special Olympics Ireland changes lives, and I truly believe that. I’ve seen first-hand
the difference it makes in people’s lives, how it allows people to develop and integrate into
society without any fear or prejudice. The corporate governance principles are very evident
with Special Olympics Ireland and this is why the corporate partnerships and sponsorships
are some of the longest of their type in the world.

20 years on from Ireland 2003 – how has the attitude and support towards the SO Games
changed? What is your message to everyone reading this?

Brian: There’s no doubt that the legacy left in Ireland and indeed around the world after the
2003 games has been hugely beneficial to the organisation here. When attending World
Games, I meet many former participants and volunteers and they still rate Dublin 2003 as
one of the best games ever. Whether this event spurred society at large into an attitude
change or not is debatable, but we’ve certainly seen a shift in attitude over the past 20
years. Inclusion and diversity are at the forefront of corporate CSR initiatives, the challenge
is in ensuring it is not just a box ticking exercise, and they are genuinely interested in
pursuing it.

The Special Olympics code states: ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the
attempt.’ This is obviously relevant to a sporting organisation, but its connotations spread
far beyond the sports fields and have relevance in every day life. A win for one person may
be a gold medal, for another it may be finding a job or passing an exam. My message to
everybody reading this is to open your eyes and your minds, treat everybody on their
abilities not on their diagnosis and remember that disability does not mean inability.

eir’s partnership with the Special Olympics Ireland since 1985 is the longest running charity
partnership in Ireland. This year, eir have once again shown their support for Special
Olympics Ireland and their volunteers who will be travelling to support Team Ireland at the
World Summer Games this June, by sponsoring the official volunteer kit and ensuring the
Special Olympics Ireland team stay connected as they travel.

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