From Iraq to India: a world in one city for the Special Olympics
Delegations from all over the world have flocked to Abu Dhabi ahead of the huge sporting spectacle in March
The countdown is well and truly on for the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi - and competing countries are getting out of the blocks early ahead of the big event.
From Iraq to India, delegations from more than 100 countries have descended on Abu Dhabi to begin preparations for the biggest games in history, and the first in the Middle East, which will get underway next March.
More than 170 nations will be vying for glory in 24 sports, giving 7,000 athletes with special needs the chance to shine on the global stage.
The games aim to be ever more inclusive, with countries looking far and wide to recruit athletes.
The Iraqi team of 87 athletes is its most representative team in years.
The country's Special Olympics team have been among the countries getting acclimatised to the venues and facilities on offer in Abu Dhabi.
Due to conflict in the country, only athletes from Basra have taken part in recent Special Olympics events - but it will be all change in Abu Dhabi.
“We are very happy for the world games to be happening in an Arabic country in the region, which is why we created our largest ever delegation,” said Saad Chnani, the national director of Special Olympics Iraq.
“For the last two years, our team was only in Baghdad because of the war but this will be the first time the Iraqi delegation will have athletes from 15 governorates.
“Gender, religion, ethnicity have no part in the Special Olympics and this Iraqi delegation represents all parts of the community. All of them are participating under the banner of peace.”
The Iraqi delegation have spent years meeting with families at their homes and at community centres to raise awareness of the Special Olympics.
Some families were initially reluctant to let their children travel, fearing for their safety. But gradually, trust has been established.
“At the end, it all comes down to trust,” said Mr Chnani.
“Once families see the Special Olympics movement and how it affects others, they are encouraged to send their sons and daughters to events.”
Special Olympics membership in Iraq has grown from about 200 to 1,400 in the last fifteen years, said Mr Chnani.
“People want to participate in society. If someone comes and takes you by the hand and shows you how to do something, it completes you.”
Mr Chnani speaks from experience. He was a teenager when a friend introduced him to the Paralympics in 1982. He went on to become a table tennis medalist.
“I know what it is like because I had a disability when I was young and somebody took me by the hand and helped me compete.
“It’s not about the medal. It’s about helping athletes, who may have autism or Down Syndrome, develop their confidence and social skills.”
The UAE’s huge Indian contingent has been asked to support their team in March.
“I want them to be aware of our athletes,” said Victor Vaz, the national sports director for Special Olympics Bharat, the Indian national committee.
“Public awareness is what’s important. With the Special Olympics, society has realised the capability of our athletes and they know how to treat them.”
India will send 299 athletes representing urban and rural communities from 23 states.
Social media has encouraged families in the Gulf to support the Special Olympics.
“Social media has spread the Special Olympic movement in Oman,” said Adnan Al Owaidi, the sports director at Special Olympics Oman.
“Awareness has changed 100 per cent in Oman because families believe sport does something amazing for their children.”
The Oman committee reached out to groups across Oman and has a badminton team from Salalah on the south coast, footballers and tennis players from the capital of Muscat, and swimmers and handball players from the northcoast city of Sohar.
The Omani delegation will include 130 athletes, coaches, medical and assistant staff.
Updated: February 20, 2019 02:59 PM