Flame of Special Olympics World Games 2019 is lit in Athens

Thousands of spectators gathered to mark the ceremony in the Greek capital

The flame of the Special Olympics World Games 2019 was lit on Wednesday, starting a relay which will see the torch journey to the UAE.

Thousands of spectators gathered in Athens as dancers in Grecian dress performed an elaborate parade to mark the beginning of the ceremony.

The Flame of Hope, the symbol of the Games, was initially handed to Special Olympics athletes Chaika Al Qassemi and Panayiotis Emmanouildis.

Hundreds of runners then continued to pass the torch through the streets of the Greek capital as it made its way to the Emirates embassy in the city.

From there it will be flown to the Emirates on an Etihad Airways flight on Thursday, and is expected to arrive in Abu Dhabi by late afternoon.

"I was very happy when Abu Dhabi won the Games, said Dionyssios Kodellas, President of Special Olympics Hellas.

"This was something they needed to have. This understanding, this love for all these people is a very fortunate thing.

"It will spread through the Arab world. In mega cities they are accepted but in many cities they are seen as a stigma in society, even their families feel it. Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion is the message.”

The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 will take place from March 14 to 21.

It comes as the Emirates proudly celebrates the centenary year of the birth of its Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.

Organisers aim to recruit thousands of volunteers to assist with the event, helping create a “lasting legacy” for the sporting spectacle.

Authorities also hope the Games will act as a catalyst to job creation in the UAE, and provide a focus to improving the lives of those with disabilities.

On Wednesday, athletes set to perform at the opening ceremony in the UAE told of their building sense of excitement.

James Casaci, 32, from England, said he was part of a choir which was due to sing live in front of delegations from almost 200 countries.

“I’m a performer,” he said. “I’ve participated in productions of Cats and Hairspray.

“The opening ceremony will be great as it’s a chance for the world to see what we can do.”

Canadian Nazeer Ali, 25, who works as a hotel waiter, said he was proud of his talents and could not wait for the Games to begin.

“I’ve told the organisers that it was important for us to connect with the audience,” he said. “They will see our talents and we have many.

“Most people don’t understand us and we get a lot of looks. We are independent and can do everything. The opening ceremony is our chance.”

More than 7,500 athletes from a record-breaking 192 countries are set to take part in the Games.

Ministers planning the event - the first time it has been staged in the Gulf – hope to redefine the boundaries of what is possible for those living with disabilities.

Some 3,000 coaching staff will be on hand to assist the athletes as well as 20,000 volunteers to take charge of close to half a million expected spectators.

After arriving in the UAE, competitors in the Games will carry the torch across every emirate.

The torch will visit sites including the Fujairah Fort and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque before arriving at the opening ceremony.

“These games will empower those with intellectual disabilities, or, as we know them here in the UAE, people of determination,” said Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State for the Emirates, in December.

“Their courage will encourage the values of unity and inclusion that defines the Special Olympics message and mirrors the values of the UAE.”