ABU DHABI – The city is to host the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, the region’s first sporting event for athletes with special needs and disabilities.
The Special Olympics international board of directors unanimously voted to award the World Games to Abu Dhabi based on a comprehensive bid proposal, a site visit by a board committee and the country’s vision to create inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
Celebrating the announcement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, tweeted: “UAE’s hosting of the 2019 Special Olympic World Games reflects the world’s confidence in UAE’s capabilities, youth & humanitarian image.”
“We welcome the world’s best athletes to the UAE, congratulate Special Olympics leadership on promoting inclusion & tolerance through sport.”
Lee Waller, whose son is legally blind and has mental disabilities, said the news was “a truly tremendous achievement and opportunity”. Having organised Special Olympics events at home in the United States, he has first-hand experience of the joy they can bring.
“It allows the nation to celebrate diversity and ability. It allows the chance of success for individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have such opportunities. It’s a tremendous experience for those people participating but also those simply sharing in the experience. Watching such things is nothing but inspiring,” he said.
Dr Sharon Waller, Mr Waller’s wife, is a special needs expert at the American University of RAK and she, too, welcomed the news.
“It will be well worth the effort it will take Abu Dhabi to be selected as the host city. It will positively impact every person that participates, not just the athletes but the parents, non-handicapped individuals,” she said.
“It’s a life-changing event for everyone. There are never any losers in Special Olympics. The first person who crosses the finish line is celebrating as much as the one who crosses it last. When you see the whole stadium standing and cheering for the person coming over the line last, it’s the most incredible experience.”
Dr Waller said it will be something Abu Dhabi will be recognised for worldwide and it is an opportunity to put itself at the forefront of standing up for those with disabilities.
Special Olympics is recognised by the International Olympic Committee but unlike the Paralympic Games, Special Olympics World Games are not held in the same year or in conjunction with the Olympic Games.
Wemmy De Maker, founder of Mawaheb school for special needs, said such events are “amazing to show the capabilities that these people have”.
“It’s giving them the chance to be part of something, part of the world. Often, they are still set aside and, even if you look at the Olympics, the Paralympics aren’t given anything like the same coverage, so this is a great platform to showcase these talents,” she said.
Heba Abdel Gawad, who has competed in two Olympic Games, in Athens and Sydney, representing Egypt with her sister in synchronised swimming, said: “It is so exciting that the first Olympics in the Middle East be hosted here in Abu Dhabi. It will raise a lot of awareness in the region, break down stereotypes and give people so much inspiration to show how the human body is incredibly adaptable and capable of achieving great things.”
The World Games happen every two years, with the next taking place next year in Austria at the Winter Games, and the baton will be handed over to the UAE in March.
Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics chairman, said: “There’s no better or more profound location than Abu Dhabi to invite the world to come together in celebration of sport, in celebration of people of all kinds, and to demonstrate to the world that the lines of division can be erased. We are thrilled to be the first fully global multisport games of this size to be staged in the Middle East.”