Dusty day does nothing to dull spirit of Special Olympians

On the third day of the World Games, athletes are undeterred by the sandstorm sweeping over the UAE

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From athletics and badminton to tennis and volleyball, the Special Olympics World Games are in full swing.

While more than 7,000 athletes took part in 18 sports at 10 venues on Sunday, across the Emirates, the two main centres for action were Zayed Sports City and Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

Supporters came out in force to cheer on the athletes, screaming over the sounds of bowling balls hurtling into pins, the dull thud of fists hitting volleyballs and the screeching of trainers on basketball courts. Thousands of pupils also visited the venues on the third day of the Games to show their support.

But at Adnec, where judo, gymnastics, badminton, handball and other sports were held, it was the cheers and national songs of the Saudi Arabian spectators watching their female basketball team compete against Kuwait that were the loudest of the day.

Bushra Alattas, 26, was one of hundreds of Saudi fans who watched the game with her flag held high.

“I am so proud,” she said. “This is the first female Saudi basketball team to play outside Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Reem Moraised, 34, who has been living in the UAE for seven years, also turned out to support her home country.

“I was surprised when I found out that we had a female basketball team. It just goes to show that there are no limits to what we can achieve,” she said.

Saudi Arabia Special Olympics Team powerlifter Hassan Alhadhariti was thrilled to see months of hard work pay off as he won the gold medal in his weight division. Courtesy Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019

It was a victorious day for Saudi Arabia on Sunday with powerlifter Hassan Alhadhariti, 23, winning gold in his weight division. He lifted 292.5 kilograms, sealing top spot in the combined squat, bench press and dead lift competition.

“I am proud of myself as the competition was pretty intense and thank God that I came out on top as I was determined to win,” Alhadhariti said. “Thanks to Allah I won the gold medal and have made my country proud.”

Emirati athlete, Saleh Al Marri, also hopes to make his country proud and specifically “Abu Khalid”.

The bowler, 25, is eager to win another medal to pay tribute to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

“I listened carefully to His Highness’s speech at the Opening Ceremony of the World Games Abu Dhabi and I want to make him proud of me,” Al Marri said.

“I will challenge everyone at the World Games. I have so much energy to perform and achieve a gold medal.

“I want all the countries worldwide to know about the UAE and about Saleh Al Marri,” he said.

"Thanks to Allah I won the gold medal and have made my country proud."

One of the most decorated athletes representing the UAE at the Games, Al Marri has helped to raise awareness of the Games and people with intellectual disabilities.

“Saleh is so determined and passionate about what he is doing,” said his coach, Samira Ouzi.

“He is so emotional and loves to hug everyone around him. He also loves to use social media a lot. But when he trains, he is disciplined and limits the time he spends on his phone and cuts down on his favourite soft drinks too.”

Across town, at Yas Links golf club, golfers had their work cut out for them with swirling dust and windy conditions – which caused the kayaking to be postponed – adding difficulty to their game.

But the athletes’ enthusiasm levels remained high, even after more than four hours on the course.

Close to 150 golfers with intellectual disabilities from across the world teed off on the first day of the golf tournament.

Relatives, who had travelled to support their team, walked along the path of the nine-hole course cheering on the golfers.

Irish golfer Simon Lowry said the wind made it difficult to judge the long shots.

“It affects the ball. It was hard to judge. Some holes took a little longer,” he said.

“Hopefully [the weather] will improve. If the winds come down, it will be more playable.”

Michael Forde, Ireland’s head coach for golf, was happy with the performance of the eight golfers in his team.

“It was very tough because of the wind and the heat. The wind did affect play because the athletes were not used to the conditions,” he said.

“We told our athletes to do the best they can but it did affect everybody. But they seem to have enjoyed the experience.”

Andreas Silbersack, vice president of Special Olympics Germany, said his team were in good spirits.

“It is very windy but the athletes are all feeling great. They just hope it will not be as bad tomorrow.”

It was also a first for many athletes who competed for the first time yesterday.

Amy Heinsmann’s mother, from the Netherlands, was in tears. Her daughter had competed for the first time in judo and won the silver medal at Adnec.

“This means everything to us. I told her that she didn’t have to get a medal and she won silver,” said Kitty Heinsmann.

NFL stars Jamaal Charles and Joe Haden were also the latest sports personalities to pass on their knowledge to a group of Special Olympics athletes as part of the Unified Sports Experience programme that pairs guests with athletes.

Jamaal, now retired, and Haden came together at Zayed Sports City and shared their tips with athletes on the field.

The Games continue today with athletes competing in dozens of sports in the hope of winning gold. Level 1 gymnastics will begin at Adnec, golf will continue at Yas Links and football and tennis at Zayed Sports City.