RIO DE JANEIRO // Stand on one of the wide walkways inside the Paralympic Village and gaze upwards at the 31 towering apartment blocks as a Swiss athlete speeds past on a hand-bike. The first image that grabs the attention is a giant flag draping down from a third-floor balcony. Above it, the Italian tricolour is plastered across every window and below it hangs the colours of Colombia, but nothing matches the size of the this black, white, red and green banner. The UAE flag is unmissable. Call it a statement of intent.
The Emirates have brought a national record of 18 athletes to Brazil for this month’s Paralympic Games, which starts Thursday. The other five GCC nations combined have brought a total of 17. The UAE will compete in a range of sports, including powerlifting, shot put, discus and shooting. And while winning medals has proved a rare treat at Olympic level, the country has enjoyed regular success at the Paralympics, claiming 12 medals in the past four iterations, including a rainbow at London 2012 where they won gold, silver and bronze.
It is here in the building with the UAE flag – a building equipped with widened hallways, ramps, and elevators that can take two wheelchairs simultaneously – that Theban Al Muhairi has chosen to sleep.
Al Muhairi was left paralysed after suffering spinal cord injuries in a car crash in 1994 while driving to Dubai from Al Ain. He has represented the Emirates in shot put and discus, but now, as secretary general of the UAE Paralympic Committee, could be forgiven for enjoying the luxury of a hotel close to the beach. Yet he shunned that opportunity in favour of staying in the Village.
“I just love being here among the athletes, I mean, the atmosphere is always so special; where else in the world would you find this?” Al Muhairi says, panning his hand out across a plaza filled with American athletes with prosthetic limbs, a wheelchair basketball team wearing the colours of Argentina and a Bahraini discus thrower with no legs and missing three fingers on each hand.
“We are all here together, striving for the same goal,” he adds from under a Panama hat. “After successful training camps in Europe, our athletes hope to grab some medals, although I cannot tell you exactly how many.”
Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani is being billed as the UAE's most realistic gold medallist contender after claiming the top prize in London four years ago. An international in able-bodied shooting before a car crash resulted in paraplegia, Al Aryani will compete in four events in Rio, starting with Thursday's first qualification round of the men's 10m air rifle standing.
“This is my third Paralympic Games, but it is different this time because I am the champion,” Al Aryani, who also won gold at the 2014 Asian Paralympics, says.
“The challenge is bigger now because people want to beat you. You need to be fully focused to achieve more and continue on as the champion.”
Inside the athletes’ cafeteria, past an anti-doping stall and a visual guide to the history of the Paralympics, everywhere the eyes roam, people with disabilities can be found. Yet as they swap pins and try the different cuisines from around the world, nobody is telling hard-luck stories. In contrast, some of the 4,350 athletes from 159 countries inspiringly speak of their good fortune.
“I consider myself so lucky,” says Zenab Al Breiki, a 20-year-old Emirati club thrower who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is restricted to a wheelchair.
“I’ve dreamt of competing at the Paralympics and now I’m here, in Rio de Janeiro. It’s amazing! I keep telling my mum on the phone: ‘It’s incredible, mum! The Village is like an entire city for people with special needs!”
Abdulaziz Al Shkeili, 29, lost the use of his legs after suffering polio as a child. Now a member of the Al Ain Club for the Disabled, he is chasing a medal in shot put and believes the experience he brings from having represented the UAE at London 2012 and at the Asian Paralympics in South Korea can help him achieve his goals.
“I am very lucky and proud to be here again,” he says, his black UAE T-shirt matching with his all-black wheelchair.
“This time I arrive more determined and I can feel a change in atmosphere: all the athletes here will push me to do better. I hope to bring back a medal. it will be a gift for my country.”
Al Aryani will start his air rifle standing campaign on Thursday alongside compatriots Obaid Al Dahmani and Saif Al Nuaimi. The event gets under way at midday local time, 7pm in the UAE.
UAE Paralympics squad
Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani, Obaid Al Dahmani, Abdullah Saif Al Aryani and Saif Al Nuaimi (Shooting); Mohammed Al Qaid (wheelchair 100m and 200m); Ahmed Al Hosani, Saeed Mubarak and Abdulaziz Al Shekeili (Shot Putt); Maryam Al Matrooshi (Javelin); Rashid Al Dhaheri (100m-400m-800m-1500m); Abdullah Hayayei (Shot Putt and Javelin); Siham Al Rasheedy (Discus); Sara Al Senaani (Shot Putt); Zainab Al Breiki (Club Throw); Noura Al Ketbi (Shot Putt and Club Throw); Haifa Al Naqbi, Mohammed Khamis Khalaf and Ahmed Al Blooshi (Powerlifting).
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