A ‘Unifed Arab Emirates’ – a nation built around tolerance and inclusion for everyone in society regardless of age, nationality, religion, gender or ability.
This was the unanimous sentiment as executives, celebrities, athletes, coaches, parents and students came together to officially begin preparations for the Special Olympics World Games.
To be hosted in Abu Dhabi from 14th to 21st March 2019, the event is set to be the world’s largest humanitarian and sporting event that year. It’s also a way for the UAE to showcase its values, which organisers say couldn’t be better matched with the games’ own.
“There’s never been a host nation that aligns so perfectly with the mission of Special Olympics,” Peter Wheeler, chief executive of the organising committee, says. “[The philosophy of] opening the hearts and minds of people around the world to the wonderful and extraordinary talents of our athletes, we have it here in Abu Dhabi and the UAE.”
About the games
The Special Olympics celebrates the skills and sporting talents of athletes with intellectual disabilities while instilling confidence. The Olympic-style event is all about shifting focus from disabilities to abilities, from isolation to inclusion.
Under the unified theme, the movement has grown to include over 5.3 million athletes where adults and children over eight years old of all skill levels compete in categories based on age, gender and ability level.
The organisation offers yearlong programmes in 169 countries with 108,000 competitions throughout the year and a World Games every other year. The last Summer Games,
hosted in Los Angeles in 2015, saw 6,500 athletes from 165 countries compete.
In Abu Dhabi, nearly 7,000 athletes from 170 countries are expected to participate.
Destination: Abu Dhabi
With unwavering support from crown prince HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the games will help carry forward Sheikh Zayed’s vision of an inclusive society and improve the quality of life for people with special needs in the UAE.
The milestone event is even more important as MENA represents just three percent of Special Olympics athletes globally. While regional games have been hosted in Beirut, Dubai and Cairo, this is the first time the World Games has been held in MENA, giving Abu Dhabi the chance to set a benchmark locally, regionally and globally.
Last year, the Special Olympics UAE programme, established in 1990, saw 5,000 athletes bring home 372 medals in 70 events.
“Our Emirati values compel us to champion the cause of people with disabilities,” Noura Bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, UAE minister of state for federal national council affairs, says. “Hosting this wonderful event reaffirms our commitment to improving the quality of life of
all segments of society. It is a materialisation of our relentless efforts to foster greater community engagement and to create widespread awareness around untapped potential of people living with disabilities.”
To find out more about the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, visit: specialolympics.org
One of the world’s greatest figure skaters, Special Olympics international board member Michelle Kwan travels the world to create more awareness about the Special Olympics athletes she now calls her family. Here, Michelle talks teen inspiration and Abu Dhabi’s role.
Do you ever think about the influence you have on others as an athlete?
When I was 13, I remember a mom coming up to me saying, ‘My daughter wants to be just like you’. Here I was, a 13-year-old, and I [thought], what does that mean! I realised I could make a difference in young people’s life. At 13 that was an awakening: you can make an impact and you don’t have to be a celebrity or a superstar athlete or an actress.
Do you think it’s something more athletes should use their status for?
You have this incredible platform and it is your choice to make use of it. It’s disappointing when athletes say they don’t care, because it is a waste of this incredible platform to make a difference.
How did you become involved with Special Olympics?
I joined the board shortly after the 2007 World Games in Shanghai, but I’ve been involved since I was 12. My first experience with Special Olympics was judging a skating competition and I was impressed by the special abilities. I saw this gift of joy, passion, love, friendship and teamwork.
What does the event mean to the athletes?
It’s the most touching and inspiring thing to watch athletes play.
In Los Angeles, I was watching a rhythmic gymnast dance; to see her face light up and then when we gave her a round of applause, she ran to her coach and gave her the biggest hug. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. She’s been bullied and has overcome a lot of challenges – she’s never had that chance and here she was centre stage. That’s what the world games is about. So coming to the UAE is like continuing our movement and spreading love.
This is the first one in MENA – what does that signify?
It’s really an ability to showcase this part of the world but also showcase the athletes who are all coming together.