Life lessons: Special Abu Dhabi welcome for very special athletes

Spending the whole day engaging and interviewing the athletes, speaking with members of the Special Olympics Board, understanding the strong investment from the Abu Dhabi leadership, and taking part in a Ministry of Youth “Youth Circle” gave me a totally different view of what the Special Olympics stands for, and it has very little to do with sports.

In 1962 Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F Kennedy, started a day camp for children with mental disabilities. The camp, which was named Camp Shriver, began operations on her own farm in Maryland, United States, to offer children an outlet to engage in physical activities and sports. As many health, emotional and psychological advantages can be gained through sports, she felt it was unfair that these advantages couldn’t be extended to children with intellectual challenges.

Camp Shriver was held yearly, and by 1968 had become known as the Special Olympics. In the inaugural Games 1,500 athletes took part. Today the Special Olympics has 4.7 million registered athletes from more than 169 countries, and in 2019 the country hosting the Games will be the UAE, with the host city being the capital, Abu Dhabi.

I attended the press conference hosted by the Special Olympics and Abu Dhabi leadership teams along with UAE athletes who had competed, and won, in past Games. Throughout the press conference we had the chance to see the athletes practise their respective sports, such as basketball, table tennis and football.

One of my highlights was a game of table tennis against former gold medallist and world champion Najat Ahmed. Well, it wasn’t so much playing as much as it was her making me look like I had no business being there. I only scored one point – and I think that was because she gave it to me.

Spending the whole day engaging and interviewing the athletes, speaking with members of the Special Olympics Board, understanding the strong investment from the Abu Dhabi leadership, and taking part in a Ministry of Youth “Youth Circle” gave me a totally different view of what the Special Olympics stands for, and it has very little to do with sports.

Sure, it is a sporting event, but the values and essence behind the Games go far beyond the competition. One such value is inclusion.

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs, discussed in detail the importance of the Special Olympics in promoting social inclusion, which was already engrained in the UAE’s DNA. It was a strong reminder to all entities and communities across the country that no matter the disability all individuals will be supported, included and provided opportunities to grow and contribute to society.

The Special Olympics promotes an ideology of “Grit”. The word grit was brought up by Dr Tim Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and chairman of the Special Olympics. He said that the one characteristic that dictates an individual’s success is the ability to keep going through failure – to have grit. Traditionally, success was always about being the strongest, tallest, fastest, prettiest or smartest, but in today’s world all those things come second to one’s ability to work the hardest and pick themselves up when they have suffered failure. It was an ideology he believed would allow the athletes, and anyone else for that matter, the ability to persevere and succeed both in sports and the outside world.

Studies have shown the positive impact the Games can have on the family members of the athletes and the wider community. After interviewing parents during the Games, most said that they had an increased trust in their child’s abilities, and became more actively involved. Furthermore the networking opportunities between families at the Games strengthen the community and help further promote awareness for people and athletes with special needs.

I was truly grateful for all the hard work of the Abu Dhabi leadership, headed by the Crown Prince Court, to bring the Special Olympics to Abu Dhabi. I was inspired by the athletes – the smiles never left their faces and their confidence was unbreakable. If anything it was a lesson in how we should live our own lives, and how we should live with each other. It’s a lesson I feel that the Special Olympics, and Abu Dhabi, are going to share with the world.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati ­columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

Published: February 2, 2017 04:00 AM

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