THUNDER BAY – The opening ceremony for the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games was full of pomp and pageantry, special guests and the lighting of the cauldron.
But through it all, only one thing mattered – the athletes.
Never has a happier, more excited, rowdy bunch of competitors made their way to Thunder Bay before, pumping their fists in the air, dancing unabashedly to the Black Eyed Peas and whooping and hollering like there’s no tomorrow.
It’s what sport should be about, and if it’s any indication what’s in store over the next four days, the city is in for a real treat.
“You’ve worked so hard to get to this point. You’ve trained and competed in your provinces and territories to quality to be representing that territory and province on the national stage,” said one of those special guests, former Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Mark Tewkesbury, a member of the board of directors of Special Olympics Canada.
“It’s going to be a thrill to watch you compete. You’re representing more than 47,500 Special Olympics athletes that take part in programs across Canada every year. They’re proud of you and everyone in your home town is cheering you on as you strive for your personal best performances this week.”
The ceremony, staged at the venerable Fort William Gardens began with the entrance of the team from British Columbia. One by one each province and territory followed, waving enthusiastically to the packed house that filled the arena, high-fiving other athletes as they went by and stopping for a few seconds to take a selfie or two to remember the moment forever.
Earlier in the day, Sharon Bollenbach, CEO of Special Olympics Canada, said it’s an exciting day every couple of years opening another set of Games.
“All of the athletes have arrived over the last couple of days, so energy is high and I know that from the Games organizing perspective and from the athletes, they’re ready to get this opening going and get started with competition,” she said.
Getting to this point doesn’t happen overnight, she added.
“It is a huge undertaking and I think the people of Thunder Bay should be really proud of the team that’s come together, not only members of the Games organizing committee who have been together over two years, but the entire community.”
More than 1,000 people have signed up to volunteer during the Games, which encompass a variety of different sports, from bowling and figure skating, to cross-country and downhill skiing, floor hockey and curling.
Co-chair Barry Streib said it was months and months of work, so when the day of the opening ceremony finally arrived, it was a great feeling.
“The real thing we noticed was the excitement level of the athletes, who just want to get started and compete and get out there and have some fun,” Streib said, adding the community as a whole will benefit from an estimated $7.2-million economic impact.
Back at the Gardens, after the cauldron was lit, Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette said she was talking last week via Skype to some children in Northern Ontario who told her they felt like they were in the middle of nowhere.
Not so, she said reminding them of the upcoming Games.
“Here, Thunder Bay, is pretty much in the centre of Canada, and there is no better place for the Special Olympics today,” Payette said.
No better place, indeed.
The Games continue at venues around the city through Saturday.