Last Friday, shortly after the final of the AFC Asian Cup football tournament had ended and the last spectators had left the stands, a very special project began in Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi: a round-the-clock operation to transform the stadium into the largest outdoor place of Christian worship ever seen in the Arabian Peninsula, in preparation for this week's visit by Pope Francis.
About 150,000 worshippers are believed to have gathered in the stadium and on the grounds outside for Tuesday's Holy Mass. Millions more around the world keenly followed the landmark three-day visit by the pontiff. During his stay, an important human fraternity document was signed, new interfaith dialogues were initiated and an announcement was made by the emirate to build new places of worship in honour of Pope Francis's visit, all of which were among the tangible legacies of a trip that has filled so many residents with joy over the past few days.
Now that the papal visit is over, it is easy to forget that just days before it took place, the country had staged such a significant sporting event as well, one in which volunteers from 131 countries, speaking 41 languages – the youngest of them just 16 years old, the oldest an octogenarian – helped out at eight host venues across four emirates. A strand of that same camaraderie and spirited endeavour was evident in every picture and broadcast feed throughout the Pope’s visit this week and in the extraordinary effort that was required to transport the nation’s Catholic community to and from the Mass from across the country.
Under normal conditions, we might all be feeling bereft today now that two of the biggest events on the winter calendar are behind us. Such major cultural and sporting events are not everyday occasions. But this, of course, is not a conventional period in the country’s history and the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world this year will soon be upon us. The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 begin on March 14. The event will see 7,500 athletes from more than 190 countries travel to Abu Dhabi to compete in 24 sports. It will be another week to wonder and marvel at what is going on around us.
Ahead of the AFC Asian Cup, there was much discussion of legacy. To host such a tournament required investment in stadium upgrades and the delivery of new training pitches to support existing infrastructure. Such is the unique nature of the Games that its impact is being felt long before the opening ceremony has even begun.
As with this week’s groundbreaking papal visit to the UAE, it is hard to underestimate the significance of holding the Games here, with the signal it sends out to the wider region and the world.
The event has already opened up conversations and policies to promote inclusion in all walks of life. It will serve as a sporting spectacle, an inspiration and an architect for change in the broader region. This is the legacy of hope for people of determination and those with intellectual disabilities that is often referred to in relation to the Special Olympics World Games.
The delivery of physical infrastructure to host the event and the establishment of virtual foundations all play a part in constructing a better, more inclusive community.
As Shamma Al Mazrui, the Minister of State for Youth Affairs, said at last year's Special Olympics IX Mena Games, such events "carry the torch of a divine mission that not only empowers athletes with intellectual disabilities to play. It empowers the character of an athlete and the entire ecosystem: their hope and belief, their bravery and determination to become all that they can be."
There might also be another benefit.
For years, we have lived with an obesity crisis and the associated risks of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It is one of the nation’s greatest challenges. Data tells us that one in five deaths around the world can be attributed to bad diet. We also know that a failure to tackle rising rates of obesity will burden the healthcare system with extra patients and growing costs.
Staging such top-class sporting events in the UAE could help the fight against obesity, both directly and indirectly. Those new pitches and improved facilities will be available for years to come. Watching elite sport serves as a nudge to get out there and be more active. And seeing Special Olympians from all over the world arrive here to represent their nations should remind us all to heed Ms Al Mazrui's words and be better in all that we do to contribute to, and benefit from, that ecosystem.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National