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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Major party marks end of Special Olympics Mena Games in Abu Dhabi

Organisers now look to planning the World Games in the capital next year

The UAE Special Olympics team celebrate during the closing ceremony for the regional games at Adnec on Thursday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The UAE Special Olympics team celebrate during the closing ceremony for the regional games at Adnec on Thursday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The cheers of athletes and their coaches echoed across Abu Dhabi on Thursday night as the Special Olympics IX Mena Games 2018 came to a close.

As the Special Olympics flag that had been flying over Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre was lowered, the Special Olympics ‘Flame of Hope’ cauldron was extinguished.

The Games were officially declared closed, and the evening’s entertainment began.

Some 1,000 athletes, their families and coaches from 32 countries celebrated the end of a successful week of gruelling competition by dancing to performances from some of the region’s greatest singers.

But it is the legacy the Games leave behind that will carry on for generations to come, says Tala Al Ramahi, chief strategic officer of the Special Olympics World Games.

“What I saw was that people came to our event with certain perceptions about the ability of our athletes but after the games, these perceptions changed,” she said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - March 22nd, 2018: The flag is brought down and passed over at the Closing Ceremony of the Special Olympics Regional Games. Thursday, March 22nd, 2018. ADNEC, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - March 22nd, 2018: The flag is brought down and passed over at the Closing Ceremony of the Special Olympics Regional Games. Thursday, March 22nd, 2018. ADNEC, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“One of the main aims of the games is to change societal perceptions and just presenting this platform where people of different abilities can interact is really important.”

Ms Al Ramahi, who is also a board member for the Special Olympics UAE, described the messages she received from those who attended as “heart-warming.”

“We went to watch the first female Emirati gymnast compete and it was so amazing watching not only how proud her father was of her but also how happy she was. She had never competed on a global level before, her parents used gymnastics as a way to let her have fun and engage in something she enjoyed but for her to compete and seeing how excited she was, was amazing.”

Throughout the competition, the enthusiasm of the athletes never waned. Seeing the athletes encourage each other with high-fives and victory dances ensured everyone around them had a permanent smile on their face.

“They are always happy and excited,” their coaches said. “You can’t help being happy around them and loving them.”

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But there will be no rest for organisers, who have already begun planning for the Special Olympic World Games that will be held in the capital next year.

“For the world games we want to make sure that we increase the number of opportunities for people to interact and we are aiming to be the most inclusive games ever held,” said Ms Al Ramahi.

Organisers aim to achieve this by ensuring that people with intellectual disabilities are included in every aspect of the Games, be it planning or volunteering.

The volunteer programme launched during the regional games has been a great success for both the volunteers with intellectual disabilities and the people who interacted with them, she said.

Ms Al Ramahi said this programme will be further developed during the 2019 World Games.

Members of the UAE Special Olympics team dance during the closing ceremony. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Members of the UAE Special Olympics team dance during the closing ceremony. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Peter Wheeler, chief executive of the Special Olympics, attended the closing ceremony on Thursday and described the Games as a great success.

“The response from the community, the number of fans, the number of volunteers really bodes well for the World Games.

“We have seen the outpouring of interest and believe that the games have increased the awareness of the community of Abu Dhabi about the Special Olympics.

“People now understand it and are excited by it. The response next year will be tenfold,” he said.

Mr Wheeler said one of the many highlights of the Games was the medical screening of 3,500 people as part of the Healthy Athletes programme, a record for any regional games.

Next year’s World Games the opening ceremony will be held at Zayed Sports City.

“We will build more basketball courts, tennis courts, table tennis. This year we used about two thirds of Adnec but for the World Games we will use a hundred per cent and expand the footprint of all the competition venues we used this time,” Mr Wheeler said.

School pupils will be encouraged to participate in the Games and will get an opportunity to meet the athletes

More than 7,000 athletes from some 170 countries will take part in the World Games in Abu Dhabi from March 8 — 22, 2019.