Spotlight on: Mary Davis, CEO of the 2003 Special Olympic World Games

WIBF Ireland's 3rd Event: Chatting with Mary Davis, Chief Executive Officer of the 2003 Special Olympic World Games

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” (Nelson Mandela, as captioned by personal autograph on a picture of himself and Mary Davis)

WiBF Ireland hosted their 3rd event in the beautiful atrium of Ulster Bank at Georges Quay Plaza on the 12th of April 2005. The distinguished guest for the event was Mary Davis, CEO of the 2003 Special Olympic World Games. Mary inspired the group by speaking about the inspiration, challenge, effort, and leadership lessons learned in hosting the Special Olympic World Games in Ireland in 2003, the first time the games were ever hosted outside the United States.

Mary Davis addresses delegates at WIBF Ireland event on 12th April 2005.
Mary Davis addresses delegates at WIBF Ireland event on 12th April 2005.

Mary Davis has been dedicated to enriching the lives of people with learning disabilities by involving them in sporting activities for many years. While people with learning disabilities are often defined by what they cannot do, Mary believes that sport provides a vehicle for them to develop, not only technical sporting skills and abilities but also personal skills such as self-confidence. Mary Davis hails from County Mayo, Ireland, between Swinford and Kiltimagh. She studied physical education at Leeds University and completed her studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. On returning to Ireland, she was appointed as a physical education teacher/co-ordinator for St. Michael's House, a Dublin-based organisation which meets the educational and other development needs of children and adults with learning disabilities.

Soon after joining St Michael's House, Mary became a volunteer for Special Olympics both in Leinster and at the Irish national level. At that time, Special Olympics, a worldwide organisation which provides sporting opportunities and competition for people with learning disabilities, was at an early stage of development. In 1985, she was the Events Director for the European Special Olympics Games, which were held in Dublin and involved 2,000 athletes from more than 15 countries. These Games were a catalyst for the development of Special Olympics in a host of European countries and they also perhaps sowed the seed of ambition for Ireland to host the World Games in the future. Following these Games, Mary became Chairperson of Special Olympics Ireland and, in 1989, when a full time management team was established, she became the organisation's first Chief Executive. There is no doubting the success of Special Olympics Ireland and the difference it has made to the lives of people with learning disabilities and to their families and friends. All around the country Special Olympics sports clubs offer training to adults and children in a whole range of sports and, in so doing, they also provide participants with opportunities for self-development and for meaningful social activities. The gruelling process of bidding to host the 2003 Special Olympics World Games began in 1995. In 1999, her team's efforts were realized when Ireland was awarded the 2003 World Summer Games and Mary was appointed their Chief Executive Officer. The 11 th Special Olympics World Summer Games in June 2003 were a stunning success that brought together 6,500 athletes from 160 countries, 3,000 coaches, 28,000 family members and friends, and 30,000 volunteers. As opposed to past games in the United States where generally only 2 large university venues were used to host and house the participants and their families, the 2003 games made use of over 70 venues throughout Ireland. Mary clearly provided the leadership for the operation by inspiring and motivating the whole team.

Annette Farrell, WIBF, with Mary Davis at the podium.
Annette Farrell, WIBF, with Mary Davis at the podium.

Mary described the challenges faced leading up to Ireland's selection to host the Games and then elaborated on the reasons for the Games' success. The factors involved are key points for any business or initiative. Firstly, Mary emphasized the importance of building a network of people, an “army' that would support her in her endeavours. The size, commitment and quality of a leadership team is important. Many thought that the Games could not be run with only 30,000 volunteers, but this was accomplished due to the network of people involved. Secondly, the importance of a clear vision was crucial in directing all efforts. The vision and brand of the 2003 Special Olympics was developed by consulting with many people, creating an environment of inclusivity where everyone's opinion was valued, and consulting with others that had been involved in international sporting events in the past. Finally, Mary emphasized that the difference between leading and managing the event was crucial. She explained that the planning and preparation of events can always be handled by able managers, but that a true leader must seek to inspire people. Leaders must also work to create a wide number of leaders to surround themselves. Managers are not necessarily leaders, but are essential contributors to a team.

Mary closed the discussion by emphasizing that the Games have taught her to recognize people's unique skill sets and to let others contribute in ways that suit them best. Working with contestants, she has also realized the importance of being yourself and the necessity of genuine behavior, actions, and attitudes for letting others discover your talents.

Mary is now looking forward to returning to her role in Special Olympics Ireland and to capitalising on the success of the World Games by harnessing sustained action for the support of people with learning disabilities. At a personal level, Mary anticipates re-energising her own varied sporting interests in the coming months. Since the Games, she has already met a gruelling personal challenge and achieved a life-time's ambition by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband Julian.

For her commitment to people with learning disabilities, for her drive and determination to make a difference and for her vision to afford all of us the opportunity to ‘share the feeling', WIBF Ireland was proud to host Mary at our 3rd event.