Why this massive sporting event is special

Abu Dhabi is preparing to host the Special Olympics World Games, a first for the region. Aside from being a significant sporting event, it’s a catalyst for creating a more inclusive society in the UAE.

Competitors celebrate at the table tennis competition during the 2018 Special Olympics Middle East North Africa (MENA) Regional Games in Abu Dhabi. 1,800 athletes with intellectual disabilities are competing in 16 sports, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on March 19, 2018.
Photo by Andreas Schaad for Limex Images / MENA GAMES

At a spectacular ceremony in Graz, Austria to mark the conclusion of the 2017 Winter Games, the logo for Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 was unveiled.

Inspired by the Emirati tradition of palm frond weaving, intersecting lines form the border of the image, while figures reminiscent of people reaching out for one another fill the space at the centre.

This powerful imagery is a metaphor for the unifying power of the Games and a testament to the spirit with which Abu Dhabi is hosting the largest humanitarian sporting event in the world from 14th to 21st March.

Unity is the driving force behind Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 and the foundation for establishing a truly inclusive society beyond one week

Changing perceptions

The Special Olympics movement began with the aim of empowering people of determination and changing perceptions through sport.

In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver noticed a void in her community. Opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities did not exist and she believed that if they were given the same opportunities and experiences as everyone else, they could accomplish far more in life.

Armed with this notion, she welcomed children with intellectual disabilities into her home for a summer day camp with the goal of exploring their skills through sports and physical activity.

By shifting the focus to what people of determination can do instead of their challenges, they become recognised for their skills, talents and contributions to the community.

Eunice was revolutionary in her thinking and that summer camp she held in her own backyard has grown into what is now known as the Special Olympics.

The first Special Olympics International Games were played in Chicago, Illinois in 1968 and last year, Special Olympics returned to Chicago to celebrate 50 years of empowering people of determination through sport.

By hosting the next major sporting event in Special Olympics history, Abu Dhabi, as the host, will usher in 50 more years of excellence.

Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 is slated to be a grand event with over 7,500 athletes and 3,000 coaches representing 192 countries.

With competitions taking place across Abu Dhabi and Dubai, athletes will compete in 24 individual and team sports – including badminton, basketball, football, table tennis, swimming, equestrian and gymnastics – in an Olympic-style tournament.

But before the Games have even started, the capital has already hosted scores of smaller initiatives in the run-up to the tournament that have begun to help shape the perceptions of UAE residents.

From hiking and biking to everything in between, people of all abilities have been coming together to play, exercise and build alongside one another.

Programmes like Walk Unified where thousands turned up including HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai crown prince, prove that social change is sweeping the nation.

Empowering families

While sports competitions are the main focus of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, the effects of this event are far reaching.

To pull off such a massive sporting event, residents were called upon to volunteer their time and talents and the community answered with enthusiasm.

Volunteerism, which is a key pillar in the UAE, is one of the ways in which the Games are bringing people together.

Athletes benefit directly from training and competing but their families, caregivers and supporters can come away with a better understanding of how they can support the athletes on and off the field, too. The Families Program, implemented by the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, helps to keep families growing together.

The goal of the Families Program is to provide family members of competing athletes with a welcoming, efficient and informed experience at the World Games.

By providing family members with opportunities for cultural exchange, engagement and leadership in Special Olympics activities, the LOC is empowering families to create more opportunities for athletes to grow, develop and live healthy lives.

Education and social integration

From the Year of Tolerance and beyond, the UAE is committed to improving life for everyone and creating a culture of inclusivity.

Consequently, the Ministry of Education has implemented measures to make education and employment accessible for all.

In 2008, the Ministry of Community Development launched an initiative to integrate people of determination in the government education system. The initiative, which was launched under the slogan ‘School of All’ and adopted by the Ministry of Education, was a major step towards the social integration of differently abled students and their involvement in the development process.

Under this program, the Ministry of Education provides expert teachers who specialise in dealing with children of determination.

Companies are also stepping up to provide pathways to employment for people of determination. Etihad Airways, the national airline of Abu Dhabi and the official airline partner for the Abu Dhabi games, welcomed a group of Special Olympics athletes to learn more about its Young Aviator’s Program, which aims to inspire youth and increase their knowledge of the aviation industry. Etihad Airways intends to attract around 1,000 students, including special needs athletes, to participate in the programme.

“Initiatives like the Young Aviators programme support the growth of a diverse and inclusive workplace culture across the UAE,” Talal Al Hashemi, national director of Special Olympics UAE, explains.

“When we listen and celebrate what is both common and different, we build a more inclusive society and a harmonious whole. Diversity strengthens innovative capacity, unleashes the potential of employees and directly contributes to business success and we encourage other industry partners to develop and lead other like-minded programmes.”

As thousands of athletes, their families and coaches begin making their way to Abu Dhabi, the capital is laying the groundwork to support, inspire and encourage.

Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 isn’t a momentary initiative. Instead, it’s the tipping point, a culmination of efforts driving important change on the heels of this world renowned event and just like the tradition of palm frond weaving, inclusiveness will forever be woven into the rich heritage of the UAE.

Get in the game

Special Olympics World Games 2019 kicks off with an amazing Opening Ceremony on 14th March. Expect to be wowed by world-class entertainment and prepare to cheer on the athletes and their coaches in the largest delegation parade ever. AED 100. Zayed Sports City Stadium. 5pm. Visit: ticketmaster.ae

Throughout the Games, 7,000 athletes will be taking part in competitions at venues across Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Sports include athletics, badminton, basketball, bocce, cycling, equestrian, football, golf, gymnastics, sailing, powerlifting, swimming, tennis and triathlon. Tickets to watch the Games are free but registration is required at abudhabi2019.org/register.

After six days of battling it out, athletes, their coaches and families will celebrate their achievements with a Closing Ceremony on 21st March. Further details are yet to be announced but keep track of updates at abudhabi2019.org

Meet the makers 

The Opening Ceremony of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 promises to be nothing short of amazing.

More than 40,000 spectators will fill Zayed Sports City Stadium and millions more will watch from home as Special Olympics athletes, celebrity ambassadors and sporting heroes take part in the largest delegation parade ever.

But before the bright lights go on and the dazzling displays of entertainment begin, let’s meet some of the makers responsible for planning the big event.

Asma Khalid Baker is a poet and spokesperson for Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. She’s one of a team of six people of determination whose ideas have inspired this year’s opening ceremony.

From suggesting a talent show to creating paintings with poignant messages about equality and determination, the team has certainly put its stamp on the event. Asthma will recite a poem during the ceremony and credits her time spent at Mawaheb from Beautiful People, a Dubai-based art studio for people of determination, for giving her the courage to take to the stage.

Asma recalls how the art centre helped her become more social: “I was in a ball, like a shell. It was hard for me to open up and make friends.”

She continues, “We’re all different but still the same. This is a time for everyone to shine.” Apart from her own personal goals after the Games – including an internship at HSBC in Dubai – Asma hopes to see the rest of the world become more inclusive in the future: “After Special Olympics, it will be easier for people to see that we have special gifts. I want to be seen. I want to be heard. I want to be noticed. “I wish to change it from special needs to determined ones. Not just in Abu Dhabi, but around the world.”

Asma and the rest of the Makers team were led by Dr Jennie Potts, a UK-based psychologist working with People, a creative agency based in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Jennie was invited to provide clinical support and bridge the gap between people of determination and the LOC for Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 by making sure that their voices were heard and that the line-up for the opening ceremony was authentic and respectful of everyone.

Speaking about the assignment, Dr Jennie says, “This is really a great piece of work and I will carry it with me. It has shaped and changed me.”

She continues, “The Special Olympics Abu Dhabi World Games 2019 will raise awareness. The spirit of the Games, inclusion and unity will last and be a legacy for the UAE. It’s not just a token thing and I hope that it will go forward.”

Special Olympics volunteer, Tina Perner

What was your inspiration for choosing to volunteer for Special Olympics?

When I was in university, I volunteered at much smaller scale Special Olympics event that took place at my university’s stadium.

I played sports throughout high school and was no stranger to the emotions that sports brings out in people, but I had never been to such an inspiring and joyful competition. I was blown away by the athletes and their positive attitudes.

I felt like their sportsmanship and positive attitudes were something that we could all learn from. Given this past experience, I had no hesitation in volunteering for the World Games.

What are you hoping to contribute as a volunteer?

All of the athletes in attendance, along with the families and coaches, have done so much to make it to Abu Dhabi.

I just hope that I am one of the many positive contacts they make along the way while here.

If I can point someone in the right direction or answer a question to make their event more enjoyable or alleviate any small stress, I’m delighted to do it.

How do you think volunteering will benefit you personally?

I feel like anytime I have volunteered in the past I end up getting more out of it than what I put in.

That Special Olympics event hosted at my university all those years ago was a great example: I was a bit stressed that morning as I had an essay to write and probably felt a bit behind but that evening when I sat down with my essay I didn’t regret my time volunteering.

I was certainly more energised than I would have been had I spent the day in the library and I think that spending time with those determined individuals put all my other concerns into perspective.

Additionally, I would like to set an example for my children. I hope as my children get older they will also volunteer where and when they can.

WORDS Tamara Clarke 

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