The cheers and applause in Zayed Sports City Stadium have fallen silent, signalling the end of the Special Olympics World Games in the UAE, but the event's legacy will resound for years to come. As Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver said, it was "the best Games in the history of the Special Olympics". That went beyond the event itself, which presented us with a week-long spectacle of breathtaking triumph over adversity, from horse rider Joseph Bradley, who was brain-damaged as an infant but went on to win gold and bronze awards, to the fortitude of the Syrian team, whose 107 athletes had to overcome the ravages of war to practise at home and compete abroad. "There were times when a shell would land in the middle of the pool or gym," their trainer told The National, "but that never stopped us".
More significantly, the Special Olympics has brought together people of all abilities and debunked falsely held preconceptions about those with physical or intellectual disabilities. It has provided a platform to showcase their talent to the world and to be rewarded for their exceptional determination and persistence. As Thomas McCobb, a badminton player with attention deficit disorder and autism, said: "For the past six days I've truly felt appreciated. I don't want the Games to end."
As the Year of Tolerance unfolds, the sporting event has sown the seeds of this nation's drive to become more inclusive, with opportunities for all to thrive and succeed in the future. Just before the Games began, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, launched 31 initiatives for those with special needs to get better access to sports, education, health and culture programmes. That will hopefully mean more UAE competitors in future Games, as well as improved opportunities to flourish in different fields at home. In just a week, the spirit of inclusion and resilience embodied by the Games has fostered hope and provided numerous highlights, the memory of which will linger for a long time. It will undoubtedly be followed by positive change in the UAE and beyond.