Hundreds of athletes from 31 countries paraded in a dazzling show of colour and light for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics IX Mena Games on Saturday night.
The Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) was filled with cheers and applause for the competitors, who travelled thousands of kilometres to be in the emirate for its first hosting of the Games.
Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs, welcomed the athletes, who have learning and cognitive disabilities, and stressed that people of all abilities must be united as one.
“To be united not only as emirates, but as one people within the Emirates,” Ms Al Mazrui said.
“That’s the united in the United Arab Emirates. A united nation. United with and for one another. United is our namesake. A unified generation who are inclusive, holistic and uplifting.”
Ms Al Mazrui also stressed the willpower it takes to overcome adversity.
“Welcome to the willpower nation - welcome to the United Arab Emirates,” she said.
Adnec was alight with the glowing wrist bands of more than 2,000 spectators who gathered to welcome 1,200 athletes. There are more than 30 countries participating in the IX Mena Games.
But the night began with a moment of silence to honour bocce player Shaikha Al Naqbi, 38, who died on Saturday morning at the team’s camp in Al Ain.
When the parade began, Egyptian athletes entered in pharaoh costumes and the Ivory Coast participants danced through the courtyard.
But by far the largest team was the UAE, which received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“The Special Olympics carries 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,” Ms Al Mazrui said.
“Empowerment and determination are the pillars of this young nation. The quest to continuously improve and pursue greatness is in our DNA.
“What’s so special to us about the Special Olympics is that it doesn’t end with the Games next week. The Games are merely a launching point into the next dream.
“Parents shared their athletes’ dreams to be here at the Games. And they also shared their dreams beyond the Games, of becoming writers, filmmakers, newscasters and sportscasters. And we all said, yes.”
The Games precede next year’s Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, marking 50 years since the launch of the Special Olympics.
Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics International, said everyone attending the Games was a member of its unique movement.
“Welcome to the sports performed by the best athletes in the world. And welcome to the countdown,” Mr Shriver said.
It’s just four months until we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our great movement and just one year until the world comes to Abu Dhabi.
“You are the first movers, the pioneers, the game changers who will make the next year great. Thank you.”