Support from UAE leaders makes Special Olympic athletes feel they 'own the world'

Families say backing of Sheikh Mohamed sends a strong message of inclusion

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UAE Special Olympic athletes feel empowered to achieve even greater feats when the highest levels of government extend a friendly hand of support, families have said.

The support from the country's leaders also sends a strong message of greater inclusion and helps to create opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities, they said.

Families of athletes who have won honours for the Emirates in international competitions described it as a morale booster when young sportspeople with special needs walk hand-in-hand with UAE leaders at events such as the 2019 Special Olympics World Games held in Abu Dhabi.

“Saleh was so proud. He felt like he owned the whole world,” said Hamad Al Marri, brother of Special Olympics UAE athlete Saleh Al Marri, who has won several medals for his country in bowling.

We always talk about diversity but I believe there will be a time when this will become a norm and it will be embedded in our culture
Dana Al Shami, sister of Special Olympics UAE swimmer Omar

“Our leaders walk hand-in-hand with them, pay them extra attention … That is real appreciation of people of determination from our leaders.”

The UAE athletes recently participated in the Invitational Games Malta 2022, the first games to be held in Europe since the coronavirus pandemic.

The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi in 2019 saw more than 7,000 athletes from a record-breaking 192 countries taking part.

It was the first time a major games event of its kind was hosted in the Middle East region and it helped to break down barriers for people with intellectual disabilities.

Photos of athletes walking with President Sheikh Mohamed, the then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in the Umm Al Emarat or Mother of the Nation Park and images of the athletes invited to meetings with UAE leaders, have appeared in newspapers and news websites and social media across the country since then.

Their families said it gave the athletes a renewed sense of purpose and sent a broader message to the community of integration.

“The athletes want to make a name for UAE, they want Sheikh Mohamed to be proud of them,” said Mr Al Marri, who participated in the 2019 unified games as a bowling partner with his medal-winning brother Saleh.

Sports lovers with and without disabilities were encouraged to be part of the same team in sports such as football, volleyball, basketball and bowling before and after the world games.

Playing alongside athletes with intellectual disabilities uses the power of sport to break down barriers, organisers say.

Realising dreams

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - November 24, 2018: HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (L), stands for a selfe with a participant in the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, on the second day of the 2018 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, at Yas Marina Circuit. Seen with HE Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, Undersecretary of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi (R).

( Mohamed Al Hammadi / Ministry of Presidential Affairs )

The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of the disease were particularly hard on the athletes.

During the lockdown, the UAE Special Olympics organised virtual exercise classes for the team and sent them sports kits filled with equipment, including light weights, dumbbells, skipping ropes and team uniforms, to keep them engaged.

Omar Al Shami, Special Olympic UAE swimmer, worked out regularly at home when gyms and sporting clubs were shut in the country.

The 20-year-old is a student at the Higher Collegiate of technology Abu Dhabi and manages swimming training several times a week with college classes.

His sister Dana said support was crucial for the families and recalled how excited her brother was to meet Sheikh Mohamed at events in Abu Dhabi.

“Meeting the person who helped them realise their dreams is so important,” she said.

Ms Al Shami believes inclusion will eventually become commonplace in society so jobs will be readily available to athletes like Omar.

“We always talk about diversity but I believe there will be a time when this will become a norm and it will be embedded in our culture,” she said.

“Now the concentration is on inclusion, whether its school or university.

“Later, it will move forward to employing these people who have graduated or finding jobs so they join the workforce.”

Special Olympics UAE provides year-round sports training for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Following the successful hosting of the games in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed pledged $25 million (Dh91.8m) in 2020 to help fund an inclusive education project led by the Special Olympics movement and allow it to operate in more countries in the Middle East and Africa.

The programmes advocate acceptance of young people of all backgrounds including intellectual disabilities through sports and youth leadership programmes.

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Updated: May 24, 2022, 6:21 AM