"We did not allow the war to stop us. In fact, we became more determined to join international championships and win medals." These words from Mohanad Taha, sports manager of Syria's Special Olympics Foundation, detail the single-minded dedication that has brought his national team to the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. Made up of participants from every province of the embattled nation, simply making it here represents a triumph against all odds. What's more, the moving and inspirational nature of the team's progress has nothing to do with the intellectual disabilities its 107 members live with.
Participating in everything from bocce and rollerblading to powerlifting, these athletes are the embodiment of grit, having committed to thrice-weekly training sessions with local coaches, whatever the situation on the ground happened to be, and then travelling to Damascus for unified coaching just a few days before the Games. There is also no shortage of goodwill among them. In addition to seasoned competitors, the organisers have also been sure to include members who have never before taken part in a major championship abroad. "We like to win but our goal is also to make everybody feel the honour of being part of the team," said Mr Taha.
This is just one of many rousing stories to emerge from the Games. Take, for instance, the football legends Didier Drogba and Cafu, of Ivory Coast and Brazil respectively, playing against one another in a match involving unified teams of Special Olympics participants held at Zayed Sports City. As Mr Drogba told The National afterwards: "These players are very competitive. The energy and atmosphere is amazing. We had great fun and we are together, and that's what this event is all about." Then there's the extraordinary tale of Yuliana Mora, the gold medal-winning Costa Rican swimmer, who began her training in a crocodile-infested river near her home.
To anyone who lives in the UAE, it’s obvious that the Games have brought a palpable sense of energy and positivity with them. There are still three days of competition left, so there’s still time to pick up a ticket and become part of this extraordinary event.