By Stella Peisch and Taufiq Rahim, Globesight
For the first time in their 50-year history, the Special Olympics World Games were held in the Middle East last week — only the second time the games were ever held outside Europe or North America.
Hosted by Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 began on Thursday, March 14, and ended with a spectacular closing ceremony on March 21. In his final remarks, Chairman of the Special Olympics Tim Shriver called these games “the best games in the history of the Special Olympics."
A total of 23 sports were played over the course of seven days — the most games ever. The 7,500 athletes competing came from over 200 countries, creating "a mini world" in the UAE. The message of inclusion was not only about people with intellectual disabilities, but also of being inclusive of people of all backgrounds and walks of life.
The opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, on March 14, 2019 at Zayed Sports Stadium.
The timing of the Special Olympics made this message ever-more poignant; the day after the games began, New Zealand saw its worst mass shooting ever, in the form of a terror attack against men and women in Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch. In response, members of the Special Olympics held moments of silence before every game on the next day. Before a men's basketball game between New Zealand and Australia, athletes performed the haka, a ceremonial Maori dance, in commemoration of the tragedy.
Head of the New Zealand delegation, Alan Robson, who is from Christchurch himself, stated in remarks to the National that “the games are all about inclusion and acceptance,” while “what happened in Christchurch is the exact opposite of that.” The New Zealand team has dedicated their medals to the victims of the terror attack.
Before a men's basketball game between New Zealand and Australia, athletes perform the haka, a ceremonial Maori dance, in commemoration of the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Athletes and particpants from around the world also dealt with other challenges. The delegation from Syria overcame war and violence to bring a team of participants from every province of the country; a swimmer from Costa Rica started training in a river frequented by crocodiles near her home. The team from Yemen competed in the games for the first time in 10 years, and the delegation was only nine people — four of whom were athletes, compared to the 70 members of the last delegation to the US. The team faced challenges from shortage of funding, training facilities, and even visas, the last of which was mitigated at the last minute.
More than 20,000 people volunteered to support the events, and showed a collective approach to setting the standard for inclusively “not just in the UAE, but globally,” Ameera Al Muharrami, director of volunteers for the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, told the Khaleej Times.
The message of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion will not end now that the Closing Ceremony has ended. A program called Unified Champion Schools that pairs public school pupils with and without disabilities for sports will become mandatory in all public schools across the country.
The Special Olympics World Games were a great moment, but now the real effort begins to ensure that there is true recognition of the importance of inclusion to allow communities to reach their full potential.
A group of women made history as the first female athletes ever to represent Saudi Arabia at the Special Olympics World Games.