ANTIGONISH, N.S. - Organizers promised the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics Canada 2018 Summer Games would be momentous … and they didn’t disappoint.
With entertainment that was inclusive to all cultures in and around northeastern Nova Scotia, those in attendance were treated to a grand welcome in the form of dance, music and motivating speeches, which sounded like they were borrowed from St. F.X. varsity coaches and given in dressing rooms around the Keating Centre and nearby Oland Centre.
Those speakers included Canada’s Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kristy Duncan who praised both athletes and volunteers.
“Each and every one of our athletes is a champion,” Duncan said. “You’re a champion because you’ve made it to these games, you’ve been chosen to represent your province and territories, and I want you to know everyone gathered here tonight is cheering you on; your provinces and territories are cheering you on, and your country is cheering you on.
“Volunteers, you make the games an experience of a lifetime for our athletes and all those who attend,” she added.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil was next to the podium and he contributed to the raucous atmosphere by starting with the bold assertion that everyone should be ready “for the best games in the history of Canada.”
“Thank you to Special Olympics Canada for taking a chance on a small town on the east coast of Canada,” McNeil said.
“Your decision will pay off; you’ve already seen the hospitality in this community and this province and we will deliver on your decision by delivering the best games in Canada,” he added, while also noting the huge contribution of major sponsors Michelin Corporation Foundation and Sobeys.
The first speech on the night was a welcome and blessing from Paqtnkek First Nation Chief Paul ‘PJ’ Prosper.
“The spirit in this room is like none other I have felt. When I arrived on these grounds earlier, there was something different about it,” Prosper said.
“Through the smiles, the high-fives, I thought to myself, what is this feeling? And later, I thought, it’s a spirit. A spirit that reflects a pure heart and when I think of a pure heart I think of a love that is freely given and without condition. A love that we all share and, with that, I want to welcome you to this historic event and wish all the best in this celebration.”
Dr. Hayden honoured
A special moment in the middle of the ceremony occurred when Dr. Frank Hayden, a Canadian pioneer in the Special Olympics movement and a man who has helped its growth globally, was honoured.
Former Canadian Olympic swimming star and current chair and president of the Special Olympics Canada board Mark Tewkesbury, along with Amie Dugan, who is senior director of organizational development and communication for Special Olympics North America, took part in the special presentation.
“The 50th anniversary is a year of celebrations and we honour the legacy of those who helped shape the movement, and we’re so lucky to have an important Canadian connection to the birth of the Special Olympics movement in the form of our very own Dr. Frank Hayden,” Tewkesbury said, acknowledging Hayden seated in the front row, who then received a standing ovation.
“Dr. Hayden helped Eunice Kennedy Shriver and a number of other individuals turn his research and belief in athletes like you into a reality, establishing what we now know as Special Olympics,” Tewkesbury added.
“In 1968, there were two countries – Canada and the U.S. – at the first Games. In L.A. in 2015, 172 countries competed; an amazing growth of the global movement.
“Dr. Frank Hayden has been an incredible force in not only the Special Olympics movement but in the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout the world.”
Dugan picked up on Hayden’s enormous contribution.
“Research on the benefits of physical fitness for people with intellectual disabilities was intrical to the concept that would eventually become Special Olympics,” she said.
“In the mid-1960s, Dr. Hayden went to Washington, D.C. and worked alongside Eunice Kennedy Shriver and was instrumental in the establishment of those first Games in 1968. He would go on to work with and for Special Olympics International for many years and helped establish and expand the movement all across the globe.
“He has been an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities for more than five decades. Folks, you’re in the presence of a living legend,” she said, adding that people should google Hayden to learn more about his achievements and, if they saw him around the events this week, should thank him.
“Because, whether you are an athlete, a coach, volunteer, family member, staff member; whether Special Olympics has made just a little bit of difference in your life or a lot of difference in your life; and whether you’ve been in this movement for 50 years or 50 minutes, you have him to thank in part … athletes, you are his legacy,” she said.
Other moving moments came from the delivering of the flags; the Canadian flag by law enforcement personnel and the Special Olympic flag by local families who have a personal connection with the Games, which included the MacIsaacs, Kearneys and Vosmans. The Vosman connection coming from long-time Eastern Highlands Special Olympic athlete Bernie Vosman who passed away this past January.
The lighting of the cauldron on the specially constructed for the Games cairn was another highlight, as was Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Charlie A’Court performing a song he wrote specifically for the event titled Let Me Win; a reference to the Special Olympics athlete’s oath – ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’
A surprise on the night came from another well-known and successful musical act, Antigonish’s own rock band the Trews, playing as a wrap-up for the night.
Opening ceremony committee chair Mary Farrell, a Town of Antigonish councillor, praised the committee for putting together the impressive show.
“I have list of volunteers I will be paying gratitude to for days, months and years,” Farrell said. “I am so proud of our committee, and I am so proud of our community.
“We showed that Antigonish rocks.”
Farrell talked about capturing the different cultures which make the area so vibrant.
“Our roots run deep here,” she said. “We wanted to show we accept visitors, we welcome visitors and we want them to feel like this is their home. I think we did that tonight.”