Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre was filled with the sound of beating drums and cheers from the early morning as the Special Olympics Mena Games got under way in Abu Dhabi
Spectators bring the noise for Special Olympics athletes in Abu Dhabi
After years of training and preparation, more than 1,000 athletes from 31 countries kicked off the Special Olympics IX Mena Games at venues across Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre was filled with the sound of beating drums and cheers from the early morning.
Teenage athlete Sherif Mohammed strapped on his roller blades and skated onto the wooden rink for the roller skating competition, wearing the national jersey of Egypt for the first time in his life.
Some had come just to participate. Mr Mohammed had come to win. “I want it for Egypt, for Egypt is the mother of the whole world,” said the 19-year-old.
His mother bought him his first pair of roller skates when he was about seven years old. “I was not training then but I was imaging my talents. I love it. When the fans are cheering me and clapping, it’s very fun.”
“He likes the show,” said his coach Tamer Abdelrahman. “Sometimes he has trouble focusing.”
Mr Mohammed has been roller skating competitively for more than a year and a half, training more than six hours a week. “When my mother told me my coach chose me to participate in Abu Dhabi, I was flying with happiness. It’s the first time I’ve got to travel.”
He was one of four selected to join the team in December during the Special Olympic National Games in Egypt. It was stiff competition to qualify, with an estimated 2,000 athletes competing in 16 sports for a chance to represent Egypt in Abu Dhabi.
“In Egypt, people have known about the Special Olympics for a long time, it’s been well established,” said Mr Abdelrahman. “It changes people’s perceptions but most of all it changes the people who do the sport.”
He has watched athletes with cognitive disabilities develop their self-confidence.
“They get trust, independence, pride in themselves and it’s good for the families,” said Manal Shaer, a coach for Jordan’s skating team. “Sometimes they cry when they see what the athletes can do.”
Ms Shaer has even noticed a change within her own family since she began travelling with Special Olympics teams ten years ago. “When I travelled the first time with Special Olympics they said, ‘what are you doing?’ But after we got the results and got gold and silver, they changed their minds and said that people can accomplish.
“Here or in Jordan or anywhere, there are still people who don’t know anything about special needs. It’s different than 10 years ago but it’s not enough. We need more from all society so they can get work. We can do more.”
On the basketball court, the Egyptians celebrated by banging drums. In the volleyball grandstands, the Syrians chanted the name of their homeland. Other halls were more subdued.
Anwar Al Mahrouqi, an assistant with Omani delegation, was the single voice in the grandstands of the table tennis hall. He whooped each time one of his countrymen hit the ball, and even when they didn’t.
“When we see their determination, they’re inspiring us to do things in our own lives,” said Mr Al Mahrouqi. “We get a lot of families now participating in this movement because they see movement in their sons and daughters. This is inclusion.”
On the basketball court, the Egyptian women’s basketball team were celebrating their win over the UAE team. The team members change regularly so that different athletes from the country’s pool of about 200 female special needs basketball players get the opportunity to take part.
“For the girls, their challenge is to bring the medal to their home and to encourage their families to keep them on track and to never give up,” said Amira Farag, the team’s assistant coach. “Most of the athletes that we have are from very poor villages that would never provided such facilities.”
“It’s a little bit difficult, especially in Egypt. We have a very different mentality. It’s not only in Egypt, it’s in all the Arab countries – some people when they get a special needs child they hide him from people. Some people they bury their kids in the house.”
Team volunteers travel to villages to talk about sporting accomplishments and the opportunities made available by the government.
For Mr Mohammed, Sunday will be a lifelong memory. After the morning competition, the skaters were invited to join American figure skater and five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, American sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari on the rink.
Best of all was placing first in his division for the 300 metre with a time of one minute and 44.53 seconds.
When asked what it takes to be a champion, he did not skip a beat.
“Focus,” said Mr Mohammed.
“No,” said Coach Abdelrahman, shaking his head. “Love. Love is first.”