Asia Gaelic Games, Manila 1997- Korea’s ‘Kimchi Kickers’

The Kim Chi Kickers of GAAG ’97

It is eleven years ago since I hung up my Gaelic football boots. In point of fact, it’s also eleven years since I first put them on, although I’m having trouble recalling exactly what were on my feet as I played the position of goalkeeper for the Kimchi Kickers, the first team from the Republic of Korea to participate in the Guinness Asia Gaelic Games (GAGG), held at Manila’s salubrious Nomads Sports Club from June 6th to June 8th 1997.

It should come as no surprise that my memories of the occasion are now somewhat fuzzy for it took a team celebration hosted by the Irish Ambassador to Korea two weeks after the event to piece together some semblance of what exactly happened such was the entertainment both on and off the field of play.

From the outset I’d like to let it be known that as our motley squad assembled on the afternoon of June 5th at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport I was very much under the impression I was only accompanying the Kimchi Kickers as one of three official fans (the others being yer man Shay from Unilever, and Yvonne, the wife of Alan Hobbs of Enterprise Ireland/IDA distinction), for I’d never in my life played Gaelic Football (the only preceding Gaelic Athletic Association recollection of note was when as an eight year old being forced to finish a dish of cold cabbage and ham in a dining room festooned by dazzling silver All-Ireland trophies and medals  at the Tralee home of John Joe Sheedy, the Kerry great) and hadn’t a clue about the rules. I’d also never been to the Philippines, and knowing well the band that called themselves the Kimchi Kickers this was one experience I wasn’t going to miss.

Official Poster - Asia Gaelic Games Manila 1997- Korea Kimchi Kickers

I’d also like to let it be known that at a quarter to four the following morning as we all poured ourselves back into the Midtown Hotel lobby, the official GAGG hotel, after an over enthusiastic introduction to Manila’s riotous nightlife, I still hadn’t a clue about the rules. I do recall though one of the more perceptive members of our line-up noting the lobby being very quiet at this time (“all the other teams must be asleep” she noted), that our New Zealand borne goalkeeper was missing, while our star player, Roy, was complaining about a bite on his neck (not of the Mosquito variety) and the need to get some sort of injection.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that one and all had just came together at the airport, were given a rule book, a Kimchi Kicker sports shirt and directed toward the boarding gate. Nothing could be further from the truth. By the time the Kimchi Kickers assembled they were a well and truly oiled team. They (note at this stage I don’t use the word “we”) were comprised of dedicated FAS graduates, Aussie Rules fanatics from down under, in addition to a Canadian and the New Zealand goalkeeper, all of whom had been religiously practicing every Sunday for the previous four or five months. And training conditions were harsh indeed, sure there wasn’t even a decent Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) practice pitch to be found anywhere in Seoul, except those hard asphalt surfaces. And despite some queer looks of puzzlement from the locals as to what sort of ball game was being played by the ginger-haired foreigners with those green tartan hats, the Kimchi Kickers persevered with their training program under the wise, professional, and inspirational guidance of Alan HobbsBritish Airways came in with a bit of sponsorship money, which made possible the fitting out of stylish on-and-off the pitch attire (as in navy blue polo shirts), which, in hindsight, must have been the attraction to join for the Kimchi Kickers’ two secret weapons: Annie from Ireland and Sue from Korea. They’d remain secret until five minutes before the kick-off of the first match when an impassioned argument with the match officials and tournament organisers ensued. Our first win and a first in GAGG history: acceptance of a unisex team that would soon be taking on the might of Singapore Gaelic Athletic Association and Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association.

Asia Gaelic Games, Manila 1997- Korea Gaelic Football Team Kimchi Kickers

It was also a committed and confident team raring to go, ready to do Korea proud, that arrived in Manila Airport, where we were bumped into Cathal Friel, a friend from Donegal, on the first leg of a world backpacking trip, who wanted to see for himself what all the commotion was about. While promising he’d be Kimchi Kickers loyal fan #4 it was lightheartedly noted his hiking boots were multipurpose. “You must be joking”, said he.

And so to 8.00am back in the now full of life lobby of the Midtown Hotel, after less than three hours sleep.  In the midst of all the cheery smiles, the hearty mix of Irish county, Australian and many imperceptible accents, the good –natured slagging and banter, as old friendships and bonds were rekindled among Gaels from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Thailand, Malaysia and Korea, I had the first spine-tingling moment of many I’d experience over the next two days:  Despite the euphoria and the sense of occasion everyone had a single-mindedness. They were here to emulate the spirit of Derek Brady and bring back the Trophy bearing his name to their respective country of temporary exile. It was a great moment to be Irish.

With the outside temperature hitting a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius, by the time we boarded the coach to drive us to the tournament venue we were already covered with sweat. However, it wasn’t just the heat that was concerning the Kimchi Kickers. Our New Zealand goalkeeper wasn’t exactly of sound mind having just returned from a night on the town absolutely the worst for wear.

“But Niall all you need to do is stand there and keep your eyes focused on the ball, we’ll do the rest”.

“But I don’t know the rules”, my second spine-quivering moment.

“We’ll explain”, said the girls, and in one of those “and the way she might look at you” Sally O’Brien moments I was in as goalkeeper for the Kimchi Kickers.

The girls produced a ridiculous looking pair of Nomads Sports Club black shorts, with an outlandish green goalkeeper’s hat, while someone else produced a pair of white runners. I was ready.

We were ready and as we ran out onto the park for our first game the only words ringing in my mind were the conundrum “carry the ball three steps, drop and toe-kick back into the hands, repeat when you’re running up the pitch and then hand-pass”.  I recall we got off to the best start possible. Team Malaysia, our first opponents, had decided they could make their own way to the venue by taxi only to become lost in transit.

For the next two days we ran our hearts out… It was absolutely brilliant.

Asia Gaelic Games, Manila 1997 Korea Gaelic Football Team Kimchi Kickers

Even now I can visualise the stifling heat, bottles of water flying all over the place, newly recruited belisha beacon-like Cathal Friel running around the pitch in his hiking boots, the two girls scaring the living bejesus out of the opposition through their high-pitched screeching and other choice weapons of mass destruction, and the strong presence and savvy footballing skills of Colin, Ray and Alan.  All helped to win the big-hearted crowd over to our underdog status.  The personal high for me on the field of play though was the draw with Singapore and my match saving tackle on their leading light. I just remember telling myself he wasn’t going to get past me, closing my eyes and running in his direction. He didn’t and the ensuing crunch hurt a lot, yet the adrenalin rush from hearing the crowd show their appreciation while my fellow Kimchi Kickers patted me on the back had me up in a jig running back to protect our goal, ready for more of the same.

In the end the Kimchi Kickers lost a few games, won one or two. However, the results didn’t matter. What mattered was the courage, dedication, loyalty to team mates, the desire to win, the humbleness in victory, and dignity in defeat that each and every participant confirmed to be the true unique spirit of the Guinness Asia Gaelic Games.

Asia Gaelic Games, Manila 1997- Korea Gaelic Football Team Kimchi Kickers - Man of the match player of tournament Medal

When it was announced I had been voted the Aer Rianta Player of the Tournament / Man of the Match, another spine-tingling moment, I felt truly humbled, an honour I am still very proud of to this day (a very useful piece of GAA metal to highlight in my CV). The post-tournament celebrations and the camaraderie were equally amazing.”

This personal recollection was written by myself — The Goalkeeper — for the Gaelic Games Association Asian County Board website. It is posted here: 

http://www.asiancountyboard.com/tournaments/asian-gaelic-games-2013/asian-gaelic-games-1996-2011/196-personal-stories

Words matter: Mentally retarded or human gift? Looking back at the 12th Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai

Growing up in 1970s and early 1980s Ireland I remember the labels “mentally retarded”, “mongolian”, “mongol” and “mongoloid” being used in casual conversations when referring to people with intellectual disabilities, or Down Syndrome. I plead guilty to pronouncing such stereotypes. By condoning or even saying such humiliating remarks, unknowingly I was in effect robbing people with intellectual disabilities of their individuality and dignity.

Such degrading descriptions of people with intellectual disabilities have been cultivated over many years:

  • P.M. Duncan noted in 1866 a girl “with a small round head, Chinese looking eyes, projecting a large tongue who only knew a few words” in ‘A manual for the classification, training and education of the feeble-minded, imbecile and idiotic. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • John Langdon H. Down (1828-1896), an Edinburgh physician, published in 1866 the first clinical description of individuals with Down Syndrome that bears his name in the landmark paper, ‘Observations on ethnic classifications of idiots’.
  • Benjamin Spock suggests in ‘Baby and Child Care (1946)’ that babies born mongoloid should immediately be institutionalized based on the premise that “If (the infant) merely exists at a level that is hardly human, it is much better for the other children and the parents to have him cared for elsewhere“.
  • The theologian Joseph Fletcher attempting to comfort a bereaved parent, concludes in 1968 that there is “no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down syndrome baby away, whether it’s ‘put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person.

Words matter!

Imbecile, idiotic, hardly human, retarded, not a person..?  No way!

Why the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games contestant will never match the spirit, resolve and strength of mind of the Shanghai 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games athlete?

Held in Shanghai from October 2nd to October 11th, my colleague and I attended the Games as volunteers hoping to be of some assistance to the 151 member Irish team, their euphoric family members and the 200 volunteers who had fund-raised over €1,000,000 for Special Olympics Ireland.

Looking back on that week I can honestly express it as one of the most heartening, and touching experiences of my life.

Vivid memories:

  • … The ‘Team Ireland’ hotel, the Equatorial. If I hadn’t of known about the Special Olympics I would be forgiven for thinking I had by chance walked into the Shanghai leg of the world’s most famous rock group on tour. The atmosphere in the lobby was electric, noisy and very cheery. And who was making all the clatter? The families of the Irish athletes. Hundreds of family members and volunteers had flown in from all over Ireland, Australia, New Zealand to support their Ruth Gribbon and Pauline Rush in Bocce, James in the Basketball, and Sarah in the Athletics.
  •   … The spectacular Opening Ceremony wasn’t just about huge fireworks displays, and appearances by celebrities Jackie Chan, Colm Farrell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as Shanghai, with the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games less than twelve months away, sought to display its organisational prowess. The true symbolism of the night was the picture beamed to almost every household in China of President Hu Jintao hugging and playing with Down Syndrome children. 
  • … The scenes of jubilation after Ireland’s basketball team at 4 points versus India’s 18 slam dunked to go to 7…. It was as if they’d just scored the winning point in the world cup final. Spine chilling and poignant indeed…. Such jubilation… Yep, that’s what sport is all about. They were having fun no matter what the score was.
  • … The barefooted 1,500 metres athlete #9, running in the yellow colours of Tanzania, who literally danced around the outside lane of Shanghai’s Olympic Stadium and then stopped to wait for his fellow competitors to catch up with him. When he finally crossed the line in first he just kept running, enjoying himself immensely as stewards and minders tried to catch up with him…
  •  …“I know I can”. First or last it didn’t matter, all the athletes finished walking or running around this 400 metres Olympics track. Their single-minded focusr on crossing the finish line, and competitive it was. Team Ireland’s Sarah, #4 in the women’s 1,500 metre walk, briskly walked around the track as if she was going for a breath of air with her dog such was her look of she enjoyment. Not one of the athletes dropped out.  It was a sight to behold, never to be forgotten.
  • … Making friends: A Danish athlete swapping badge pins with her Irish athlete counterpart, spur-of-the-moment stuff. This was their stage and they were thoroughly enjoying it.
  • … The devotion and enthusiasm of each Chinese volunteer assigned to an athlete as a minder. The clearly genuine amity between the two for me really captured the power of the Special Olympics spirit. Despite the enormous challenge of convincing China’s populace at large that the intellectually disabled are able to lead a happy life and contribute to society these volunteers in my mind have really shown the way.

And so much more…..

For anyone who has never been to one of these momentous events, it is worth the time and effort to appreciate the extent of human potential and to recognise that each unique human gift has a place in society.

Words matter!

Witnessing the social and cultural transformation of the underserved and often marginalised intellectually disabled as I did at the Games in Shanghai certainly made me feel ashamed, very ashamed.

Imbecile, idiotic, hardly human, retarded, not a person..?  No way!

Appreciating the value and importance of including people with intellectual disabilities into all aspects of life, I look forward to the next Special Olympics World Summer Games, which will be held in Athens in 2011.

[Note: The previous 11th Special Olympics World Summer Games held in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003 was mired in controversy even before the Opening Ceremony following the Irish Government’s banning of the Team Hong Kong’s participation due to worries about SARS. An outraged Niall O’Reilly decides to write two letters highlighting the Irish Government irrational and hypocritical decision…. To read more click: https://nialljoreilly.com/2007/09/21/special-olympics-world-summer-games-shanghai-october-2-11-2007/ ]