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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Sport is a powerful, uniting force for good

As the Special Olympics Mena Games got under way, the transformative nature of sport was on display across the region

Salem Alkhaili, a Bocce player, is proud to be representing the UAE in the Special Olympics Mena Games. Victor Besa / The National
Salem Alkhaili, a Bocce player, is proud to be representing the UAE in the Special Olympics Mena Games. Victor Besa / The National

The Special Olympics IX Mena Games began officially today with an opening ceremony to stir the senses and remind all of us that this is a special time to be in the UAE. The 2018 games welcome more than 1,000 athletes from 33 countries to compete in 16 different sports. The games will also act as the most exacting form of dress rehearsal for the much larger 2019 World Games, also in Abu Dhabi, which will be the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world next year. As The National reported, many of the athletes competing this year have compelling and inspiring stories. Consider the words of swim coach Jamal Nasser who worked with one swimmer for five years without a breakthrough only for this competitor to dramatically turn around his fortunes: “We trained a lot and suddenly there was a spurt. Suddenly he swam all strokes with all the power. Suddenly it was like he was saving up all the information and it came together.” If the games serve to deliver this and other inspiring stories to a wider audience and to change perceptions about people with intellectual disabilities then they will have more than fulfilled a very important purpose.

More examples of the transformative nature of sport have been on display recently, both at home and abroad. The arrival of Manchester City’s first team squad in Abu Dhabi for a few days of warm weather training last week created much excitement among the club’s fans. The pictures of Pep Guardiola’s team of superstars training in the shadows of a cluster of Abu Dhabi’s newer high-rise towers served as a reminder of how much both the club and this city have changed in the past ten years.

Elsewhere in the region, Fifa announced yesterday that it had lifted a years-long ban on Iraq staging competitive international football matches. The country will stage a friendly tournament next week, following the successful hosting of the Saudi Arabian national team at the end of last month.

Further afield, the UAE cricket team secured an important victory in the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe. Although the team has not been able to win a place at next year’s World Cup in England and Wales, their performances have been good enough to retain the squad’s international status. The domestic game as a whole will be better off for this, with international funding likely to trickle down to grassroots level.

Finally, last week it was announced that the Abu Dhabi and Dubai Sport Councils have agreed to merge the Abu Dhabi and Dubai cycling tours as they seek to create a seven-day, seven-stage, seven-emirate tour.

All of these stories are bound by transformation - of individual lives, of entire sports, events and, indeed, perceptions. Good luck to all competing in the Special Olympics.