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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Let the Games begin: Special Olympic athletes carry torch through Abu Dhabi

The athletes lit a cauldron at Louvre Abu Dhabi to mark the beginning of the Special Olympics IX Mena Games

An hour before dawn, while most of the country lay still, twenty athletes with intellectual disabilities set off on a 13-hour journey to carry the lit Special Olympic torch through the capital.

The torch, representing their right to inclusiveness both in sport and beyond, snaked through Abu Dhabi’s streets for seven kilometres, beginning at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and ending at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

Stopping at Louvre Abu Dhabi, they lit a cauldron to mark the beginning of the Special Olympics IX Mena Games, where more than 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 31 countries will compete.

At each stop throughout the trail, residents applauded and cheered the athletes on, beginning with a police parade and a glittering ceremony at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Yet the proudest and the happiest of all during the run were the torch bearers – 33-year-old Khaled Al Hajeri and 26-year-old Hareb Malallah.

In spite of the warm weather that had many seeking shade and the cool indoors, the athletes were resilient and seemed immune to the heat.

“We could go on and on,” said Mr Al Hajeri, who has learning difficulties. “We are happy carrying the torch. Never before did I hold such an important torch and run with it and if I could, I would run with it all over Abu Dhabi."

His partner, Mr Malallah, said he was spurred on by his excitement for the Games which begin on Saturday. “We are ready. We are excited and we are the strongest.”

So inspiring were the athletes that their police escorts elected to volunteer their time to be with the team.

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“Our shift beings at 7.30am and ends at 2.30pm but we have been with the team from 5am and will stay with them the entire day,” said First Col Saeed Al Mansoori.

“We are all prepared to and want to spend all our time with the Special Olympics team. It is not just serving our country and doing our duties but in the few days we have been with them, they have become our friends.

“I love their innocence, their spontaneity, their cheerfulness, their passion and determination is like noting I have ever seen. If we were not asked to be here, we will all come on our own and that is what we plan to do from now on,” he said.

Two officers have been brought in from the United States and Australia to be with the team and ran alongside them on Wednesday

Retired Capti John Newnan from the Maryland Howard County police who visited last July to help with the planning of the torch run said: “What we want to do is involve the police and provide support. Special Olympics is the charity of choice for law enforcement officers around the world.

“Our purpose is two-fold, to create awareness and excitement for the games and also to engage local police moving forward and helping to support Special Olympics,” he said.

Police officers from every US state and 36 countries will be attending the World Games to be held in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

“We are excited for the Mena Games and we will win but it is winning the world championships that we are after,” said Mr Malallah.

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