SPECIAL OLYMPICS

Abu Dhabi 2019 | SPORTS | FORUM

Beyond merely the pride of hosting a global event, the Special Olympics have resulted in a more inclusive society and a more vibrant sporting culture in the UAE.

How do your role and responsibilities contribute to the preparation of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 and the establishment of a solid legacy of social inclusion of people of determination through sport activities?

TALAL AL HASHEMI Special Olympics UAE was founded in 1990 and is dedicated to serving athletes of determination through sports. My role involves developing and conducting a high-quality year-round program of sports training, competitions, athlete's leadership, and healthy athletes, for children and adults of determination. The Special Olympics UAE team works closely with the UAE athletes on a day-to-day basis to ensure they are getting the most out of their involvement with the program. The UAE plays a leadership role in expanding Special Olympics activity throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. Abu Dhabi hosted Special Olympics ninth MENA Games 2018, the third time it has hosted the regional Games. The 2018 edition was the most 'unified' in the history of the Special Olympics MENA, with inclusive teams featuring athletes with intellectual disabilities playing alongside athletes without intellectual disabilities in basketball, tennis, table tennis and football competitions. Through our hard work, we have ensured we have a team participating in all disciplines at the upcoming World Games. We recently recruited our first athlete who will represent the UAE in Tennis, which means the UAE is now taking part in every sports discipline. Special Olympics programming is being introduced through the nation's expanded educational and rehab facilities that allow many athletes to participate in sports and fitness activities and many other empowering programs. Once the World Games are over, Special Olympics UAE will continue its work with the thousands of people of determination it currently works with and ensure they have access to sports training, competitions, and leadership programs around the world.

TALA AL RAMAHI Developing a legacy for the Games means that we work on projects, programs, research and Games-time events that will promote inclusion and empower people with intellectual disabilities. We do so through partnerships with international organizations such as Special Olympics International, and federal and local governmental institutions, in addition to NGOs and the private sector. Part of my role is working on the Community and Legacy Committee. As part of the program, we have kicked off a representative comprehensive survey of people with intellectual disabilities in eight countries in the MENA region. This piece of research will provide the first true baseline of data and insight on people with intellectual disabilities in the region. Leading up to the games, we kicked off Walk Unified and Cycle Unified, two community programs with a simple premise—to get people with and without disabilities to walk and cycle together. These programs have grown into a national movement, and hopefully will become the norm in the UAE and beyond. We will also be commissioning public art pieces to commemorate the games and celebrate the value of inclusion and to raise awareness of people with intellectual disabilities through the arts. We hope to promote inclusion through pairing a person with intellectual disabilities with an artist in order to create a public art piece. Creating change through education will play a big role in the Legacy Program. The UAE aims to engage 100,000 youth through Special Olympics. We are currently working with education organizations to incorporate content on disabilities, inclusion, and Special Olympics into school curriculums. We hope to eventually incorporate the values of Special Olympics into the school curriculum of every single public and private school in the country. The games will serve as a platform to increase understanding, tolerance, and inclusion throughout the nation and region.

What is the strategic framework for the organization of the Special Olympics 2019, and what are the key areas of focus?

KHALFAN AL MAZROUEI The overall framework is clear and is focused on delivering a strategy and vision for the most unified Games in the history of Special Olympics. Taking place under the patronage of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE's Armed Forces, the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 is an integral part of local, national, and regional plans to expand opportunities for people of determination in line with Abu Dhabi and the UAE's shared vision of a unified and inclusive society. A local organizing committee (LOC) has been formed to bring together talent and knowledge from within the UAE, around the region and internationally. The LOC works alongside Special Olympics International to develop and deliver a strategy as we progress towards the World Games. LOC has several key functional areas that are vital to the smooth running of the World Games, with experts working across each of these areas. Some of these areas include sport, ceremonies, community, and health, amongst others.

What is the hardest aspect of your role in the Special Olympics?

TAH We really want to educated people on the Special Olympics value of participation as opposed to focusing on winning—this is something that is unique about Special Olympics in comparison to other Olympic games. We recognized that we may face challenges in our ambition to find athletes to compete in every Special Olympics sport, so we devised a plan to introduce athletes to sports they may not have experienced, but had affinities with their interests, for example indoor and outdoor swimming.

TAR With any project of this scale, the sheer amount of work to be done is challenging but working on the games is a hugely rewarding experience. Ensuring that we are meeting our ultimate objective of creating long-term change across the region by working with entities and partners to ensure the correct policies are put in place for people of determination to be able to succeed is a huge task, but we are determined to do it.

KAM The major challenges are two-fold—infrastructure and understanding. Abu Dhabi is already a major sporting destination and hosts the Abu Dhabi Formula One each year along with other world-class events, so we just need to work with the skills that are already here and adapt them to the World Games. The public's awareness and understanding about what the World Games represents has massively improved since Abu Dhabi held the IX MENA Games in March 2018. This has helped to bring both the public and private sectors together in understanding what the World Games is all about. The IX MENA Games also provided us with a 'practice run' ahead of the World Games—many lessons were learned, and we have updated our strategic plan to ensure that we do not face the same problems as the World Games.

What are main lessons can be taken away from the experience of hosting the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019?

TAH Working as a Special Olympics National Director in a World Games host country is a unique opportunity—particularly with this being the first time that a World Games is hosted in the Middle East. Seeing the athletes develop as they prepare for the World Games in their home country is incredibly rewarding. We get to see first-hand not only their sports skills improve, but how their confidence improves and all areas of their life become much more positive due to Special Olympics. We also get to see their families' reaction to their development and how proud they are—Special Olympics changes the lives of so many people across the UAE. Prior to my roles with Abu Dhabi Sports Council and Special Olympics UAE, I was a goalkeeper for Al Ain Football Club, so I have a unique understanding of how much it means to all of the athletes participating in the World Games to represent their country and interact with athletes from all over the world.

TAR The main lesson has to be meeting so many talented and inspiring athletes and hearing the stories of how Special Olympics has impacted their lives first-hand. I have learnt so much about the power of sport and had the opportunity to witness how it can break down boundaries and help to create a more unified nation. I've learnt that as a society, we have an obligation and national duty to provide people with disabilities with the right platform and opportunities for them to flourish and be an integral part of our nation-building process. This is what Special Olympics was about—it began as a sporting movement but has grown to become so much more because of the doors it has opened for our athletes. I am looking forward to seeing how the Legacy projects we are working on evolve over the next six months and how they will have an impact after the games.

KAM The idea that Abu Dhabi should host the World Games was a government initiative. There was firm backing from the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court as a key stakeholder in the bid for the Special Olympics—having strong government support from the host nation for a World Games is critical. The inclusion and integration of citizens and residents with special needs is a priority for the UAE leadership and is backed by legislation and comprehensive support for people with disabilities of all types, and their families. As well as working closely with government entities, outreach to local communities is key. We want to use such events to create a conversation that includes people of determination and that educates the public on not only their needs, but also how they can contribute to society. We want to build a more tolerant and inclusive society for every single person of determination in this region and around the world through all of the activity leading up to the Games as well as the actual Games.