Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

The Special Olympics: the perfect nexus between sport and humanity

The transformative effect of sport is often overstated but it is near-impossible to exaggerate the legacy of the Games

The Special Olympics World Games athletics competition in Dubai Police Academy Stadium. Reem Mohammed / The National
The Special Olympics World Games athletics competition in Dubai Police Academy Stadium. Reem Mohammed / The National

It’s almost over. The Special Olympics World Games closing ceremony takes place tomorrow – and what an incredible week it has been in the UAE.

A stirring rendition of Right Where I’m Supposed to Be, the agenda-setting anthem for the games, provided one of the highlights of opening night last Thursday and has been the ubiquitous musical accompaniment to the action. The excellence and endeavour of more than 7,000 athletes who have competed have sparked an engaging and enthralling week of events.

Sport is often riddled with cliches. But the Games in Abu Dhabi have been a very real materialisation of one oft-heard phrase – that it's the taking part that counts – which was famously coined by Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern games. He articulated the Olympic ideal that “the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.

Time and again we have seen athletes doing just that, overcoming incredible obstacles just to compete and win medals. And over and over again, we have watched these same competitors conquer our hearts.

I was particularly honoured to be asked to hand out medals to competitors this week at Adnec, one of the venues for the games.

The National's assistant editor-in-chief Nick March presenting medals at the Special Olympics World Games / Courtesy Nick March
The National's assistant editor-in-chief Nick March presenting medals at the Special Olympics World Games / Courtesy Nick March

To be in the cauldron of the emotionally charged awards arena and to witness supporters, fellow athletes and well-wishers rally and cheer each competitor onto the stage was to observe the perfect nexus between sport and humanity. This was a destination point for these contenders, but it also felt like the start of another, bigger journey.

The potentially transformative effect of sport is often overstated in our collective eagerness to attach significance to great performances, but it is near-impossible to overestimate the heft of the Special Olympics World Games.

Energy, goodwill and camaraderie have abounded in the competition halls and venues all week, feeding a sense that anything might be possible. It is an infectious mindset.

Spectators cheer on competitors at the Special Olympics World Games. Reem Mohammed / The National
Spectators cheer on competitors at the Special Olympics World Games. Reem Mohammed / The National

This newspaper’s reporting has brought us into contact with athletes and administrators, founders and famous people. Their words articulate why sport really does matter and how it can bring about change.

On the eve of the opening ceremony, Tim Shriver and Mary Davis, chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics respectively, reminded us of the broader themes at play in Abu Dhabi this month.

They said the goal of the movement was to live in a world where “inclusion is the rule not the exception. Where all sports are unified sports … A world where intellectual disabilities, gender, race, colour and faith are incidental markers that do not obscure the humanity we all share”.

We marvelled at the story of Costa Rican swimmer Yuliana Mora, who overcame extraordinary circumstances, including training in crocodile-infested waters, to claim gold last weekend. And we heard from Mohanad Taha, the sports manager of Syria’s Special Olympics Foundation, who discussed the particular challenges that faced his team: “We did not allow the war to stop us. In fact, we became more determined.”

Then there was South African assistant head of delegation Ephraim Mohlakane, who told us: “If it was not for the Special Olympics, I think I would just be at home. I would just be sitting doing nothing, learning nothing.”

And there was the inspirational story of American competitor Joseph Bradley, who survived a violent childhood experience and was described by his mother as her miracle, going on to win gold and bronze at the equestrian events this week.

Amar Alhattali, who was one of the portraits taken by The National's photographer Victor Besa for the Access Ability exhibition at the Emirates Palace hotel, told us that it was “really good thing for people with disabilities for the Olympics to come here. For people to exercise and communicate, I think it is great.”

Athletes run the 100m sprint at the Special Olympics World Games. Reem Mohammed / The National
Athletes run the 100m sprint at the Special Olympics World Games. Reem Mohammed / The National

So what will we be left with, beyond this international scrapbook of memories, after the baton has been passed tomorrow to Sweden, which hosts the Winter Games in 2021?

Most discussions of legacy after a major sporting event focus on avoiding expensive new facilities becoming white elephants following the closing ceremony, which does not apply to these Games.

There is no athlete village to dismantle or repurpose – the competitors have been booked into hotels around the city – and all the venues had a life and function before the event began and will do so afterwards.

The legacy the Games will deliver is one of hope and substance and will be an architect of change for policy and perception.

As Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, reminded us at the opening ceremony: “We send a message to the world that nothing is impossible when there is determination.”

That message will continue long after the Games. Already we have seen projects launched to continue community engagement and programmes unveiled to keep building bridges. There is more to come, of course, but for now, let’s celebrate the conclusion of this special week and the memories that have been created.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Irina Egorova takes the win in the first round of women's kayaking. Victor Besa / The National
Irina Egorova takes the win in the first round of women's kayaking. Victor Besa / The National

Updated: March 20, 2019 03:17 PM

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