'Best ever Special Olympics' to deliver lasting legacy

Games to officially begin with spectacular opening ceremony

Thousands of athletes from around the globe will take centre stage on Thursday night for what organisers promise to be “the best World Games in the history of the Special Olympics movement”.

The opening ceremony at Zayed Sports City from 6pm will mark the official start of the first Special Olympics World Games held in the Middle East.

The eight-day event will add to the respect of people with intellectual disabilities in the region, with about 7,500 athletes from more than 190 nations and territories competing.

The Flame of Hope torch, which has been making its way across the UAE since March 4, will complete its long journey and be used to light a symbolic cauldron in front of tens of thousands of spectators.

A spectacular light and fireworks display is also expected and the athletes will take part in a 90-minute-long parade, just more than 50 years after the first Special Olympics was held in Chicago in 1968.

Tributes will be paid to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F Kennedy, who founded the Games and died in 2009.

Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne, and Emirati singer Hussain Al Jassmi are among the famous artists who will perform the Games' anthem, Right where I am Supposed to be.

The ceremony was designed in collaboration with people who have learning disabilities.

They will recite their own poetry and lead dance performances during the show, which is expected to last more than two hours.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - March 13, 2019: L-R Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics International, Her Excellency Hessa bint Essa Buhumaid, Minister of Community Development speak at the Special Olympics Opening Press Conference. Wednesday the 13th of March 2019 at ADNEC, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“It’s a great pleasure for us to be here in the Middle East for the first World Games that have been held in this part of the world,” Mary Davis, the Special Olympics chief executive, said on Wednesday.

“I have never seen anything like the preparation that has been put in over the past couple of years into ensuring these games will be the best World Games in the history of the Special Olympics movement.”

For the first time in the history of the Games, which have previously been held in the US, Ireland, China and Greece, a dedicated team has been set up to ensure the event has a lasting legacy in the Middle East and beyond.

The Games will improve the lives of people of determination for generations to come by inspiring a wide-ranging overhaul of laws and new initiatives, said Hessa Buhumaid, Minister of Community Development.

Ms Buhumaid said full details of 31 new programmes, recently signed off by UAE rulers, will be announced in the next month.

The programme was “incredibly exciting”, said Ms Davis, who also praised a scheme to ensure young people with and without disabilities played sports together at UAE schools.

She hopes the country will become a global centre for the initiative.

“I’m very interested to sit with the minister and her colleagues and find out more about these 31 initiatives,” Ms Davis said.

“The other legacy that the organisers here have taken on themselves is to invite an additional 20-plus countries that have never had the opportunity to participate in Special Olympics before.

"Those countries will see the benefits of the programme and how it can help them, in many African nations for example, which is another fantastic legacy.”

They 31 schemes will cover areas including education, culture, health and spreading international awareness, Ms Buhumaid said.

They will and come in addition to law changes in areas such as building regulations and a new system of categorisation for people with different disabilities, which have been announced recently.

The policies were designed after consultation with disabled people and their families.

“The legacy of the Special Olympics has already started,” Ms Buhumaid said. “We have witnessed a major transformation in our policies, legislation and initiatives, which the government is handling.

“We are happy to announce 31 initiatives that have been approved and will go out in less than 30 days, from Cabinet to the world.”