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Gary McDonald: ‘It was a real privilege to meet Muhammad Ali at Dublin's Special Olympics'

American boxing legend Muhammad Ali passed away on Friday aged 74. Picture by Associated Press

IT was a night of princes, presidents and prime ministers as Ireland put on a show for the world - and Croke Park had never see anything quite like it.

It was June 2003 when Dublin welcomed 7,000 athletes from 160 countries for the 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games, the first time the event had ever taken place outside the US.

Beamed live around the world on television, Irish and visiting Olympic athletes took centre stage in front of 75,000 spectators for the opening ceremony on a balmy Saturday night - and there were more international celebrities there than you could shake a stick it.

But two men - now sadly both passed on to their greater reward - stood out on what, for me, was indisputably the most awe-inspiring occasion of my entire life.

For here we had former South African president Nelson Mandela and boxing legend Muhammad Ali, two global icons, under the same roof. On the same night. In Dublin. And I was privileged to have met both.

Despite my modest ability as a bagpiper, I was one of the musicians at a spectacular opening ceremony which drew on the talent of some of Ireland’s leading musicians, performers, directors, designers, choreographers and composers

Forget the fact that I shared a stage (and a table during a rehearsals lunch break) with U2.

Forget that I got to meet film stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Colin Farrell or musicians like Jon Bon Jovi and The Corrs.

For me, the event was astonishing for the sheer presence of Mandela (who was there to officially declare the Games open) and, arguably to a greater extent, by Ali.

My sporting idol growing up was George Best, but his star was already on the wane by the time I was allowed to stay up to watch the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, and suddenly there was a new hero in my life.

When I got to meet him fleetingly but so memorably for the only time nearly three decades later, the onset of Parkinson’s disease had taken a heavy toll.

But the chiselled good looks and charisma of the man both remained, despite him now being moustachioed and slightly greying.

I was especially struck by his hands. Massive and once so powerful, they now shook almost uncontrollably.

But he still reached out to touch and greet so many people, myself included, as he toured backstage at Croke Park before his buggy emerged into the Saturday early evening sunlight to awe-struck spectators.

In just a few stupendous seconds I’d been blown away by his charm and his aura. It was an extraordinary moment which will never leave me.

One of Ireland’s foremost composers, Shaun Davey composed the original music for those Special Olympics which Ali et al attended.

The centrepiece was the athletes’ song ‘May We Never Have to Say Goodbye’, which was later released as a single and went to number one.

Like Nelson Mandela nearly three years ago, we’ve now had to bid a heart-wrenching goodbye to Muhammad Ali too. But thanks for the memories.

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