ABU DHABI // More than 1,000 athletes from 23 countries in the Middle East and North Africa marched in Abu Dhabi last night for the opening ceremony of the sixth annual regional Special Olympic Games. The Games will feature more than a dozen events for athletes with cognitive impairment and special needs. The opening ceremony, on the fields around the Armed Forces Officers Club, came as the Flame of Hope of the Special Olympics World Winter Games arrived in Abu Dhabi from Dubai.
It was a stop on the torch's three-month journey to next year's Special Olympics World Winter Games 2009 in Idaho in the United States. Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed, the national security adviser, attended celebrations at the Emirates Palace hotel to welcome the flame, lit in Athens on Nov 12. Dr Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, arrived from Washington, DC, for the opening ceremony.
Standing under the banner of an athlete with Down syndrome, fists pumped high in the air, Dr Shriver expressed hope for the Games in Abu Dhabi. "I am stunned by the sign above my head," he said. "If you are an athlete, don't let anyone tell you your abilities don't matter. The world will say that sometimes. "Everyone has a different ability, and we will never accept that message." A total of 1,400 athletes and coaches have come from countries including Iran, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Iraq for Abu Dhabi's first regional Special Olympics.
The Games begin tomorrow, with the closing ceremony on Thursday. Most events can be seen at the Officer's Club, the Fitness Club Al Jazira Complex and at Ras al Akhdar beside the Emirates Palace hotel. The events include cycling, powerlifting, badminton, swimming, equestrian, basketball and football. At the Games in Dubai last year, the UAE led the final medal tally with 65 medals, followed by Egypt with 62, and Syria with 33.
Hareb al Jasmi is a testament to the power of inclusion and understanding. Mr Jasmi, 23, from Dubai, has a cognitive impairment but he can run like the wind. He has been running competitively since he was 10, and has competed in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 400m relay at three Special Olympics. Mr Jasmi has won seven gold medals. He keeps them in a glass case on the wall, although when he is home, he can rarely resist draping them around his neck.
"I train very hard," he said. "I wake up at 8am and train, and then again in the evening from 5pm until 10pm. It is every day like that." Dr Ali al Suwaidi, the head of the healthy athletes committee for the Abu Dhabi Games, said more awareness was needed for people suffering from cognitive impairments. Dr Suwaidi said people with special needs were often excluded from job opportunities, social interaction and proper medical care.