Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

For Saudi Arabia's Special Olympics relay team, the greatest victories are off the track

For many of those competing, it is the first time they have travelled without their families

From left, Mohammed Al Olayan, Abdullah Al Jabr, Moayad Al Darwish and Mohammed Al Refai, athletes from the Saudi Special Olympics relay team Pawan Singh / The National
From left, Mohammed Al Olayan, Abdullah Al Jabr, Moayad Al Darwish and Mohammed Al Refai, athletes from the Saudi Special Olympics relay team Pawan Singh / The National

Four runners from Saudi Arabia will be carrying the hopes of their country with them as they take to the track for the 400 metre relay in Dubai on Wednesday afternoon.

One of the strongest runners on this Saudi dream team is Mohammed Al Refai, who grew up on the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea, not far from the border with Yemen.

Mr Al Refai, 33, will run to honour his father, who passed away two years ago. His father, a sports club director on the islands, was the one who first encouraged him to take up sport.

“My father wanted me to be an athlete and he didn’t get to see me compete but I know he’s watching me and he’s looking over me.”

For many Saudi athletes, the greatest challenges and victories are not on the track, but in travelling without their family for the first time. One runner was so concerned about the safety of her shoes that she locked them in the hotel room safe.

Dr Heidi Alaudeen, director of Diversity and Inclusion and Partnerships for the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia, said that there are “centres of excellence” for people of determination in Saudi, but misunderstanding continues in some communities.

“We have gone from not talking about individuals [with disabilities] and keeping them within the family, to now demanding our rights,” said Dr Alaudeen.

“We understand this is a rights based issue, this is not a charity issue — it’s not longer about giving and being kind. They are in the community and it’s not only about taking care of them. They can also give back to their communities.”

Mr Al Refai won gold in the 200m on Sunday in 22.94 seconds and will compete in the 100m sprint on Tuesday.

“I don’t have the words to describe how I felt when I won,” said Mr Al Refai.

“I was so happy and what makes me even prouder is that I was able to make Saudi proud of me. I’m the only player competing from my region of Jizan.”

Joining him on the team will be Moayad Al Darwish, 29, who comes from Qatif, a city on Saudi’s east coast.

It has been an emotional week for Mr Al Darwish, who was in tears when he won gold in the 400m sprint on Monday with a time of 1:10:38.

"I am not able to describe my excitement," he said afterwards.

"I have a whole group of people, 250 people, at my club back home cheering for me.”

Running has been a part of Mr Al Darwish’s life for years. He is an active member of his local sports club and a regular at national competitions. He runs five kilometres every day.

He has been finding it hard to keep up with the volume of congratulations messages he has been receiving from his friends at home.

“People really support me,” he said.

Thame Ahmed and Special Olympics first-timer Abdullah Al Jabr are the final members of the team. Mr Al Jabr, who represents the Eastern Province, said training has changed him.

“It made me strong,” he said, putting his hands on his thighs.

This relay team will go head-to-head with teams from Senegal, Denmark, Russia, Canada and Paraguay at 3.30pm on Wednesday at the Dubai Officers Club Stadium.

Cheering from the sidelines will be their teammate, Mohammed Al Olayan, who won bronze in the triathlon and gold on Monday in the 5,000m run with a time of 26.55.80.

Mr Al Olayan began competing in the Special Olympics seven years ago as a swimmer.

His friends call him “the joker” — he's a wild card who excels at anything.

The men are certain that they will enjoy big celebrations, and a lot of cake, when they return home. But Mr Al Olayan won’t be cracking into it — health is a priority for this versatile athlete, who has his sights on representing Saudi in speed skating next.

Updated: March 19, 2019 08:45 PM

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