The Special Olympics torch has touched down in Abu Dhabi, marking the two-week countdown to the world’s largest humanitarian sports event.
Beneath an overcast sky, the Etihad plane – emblazoned with the faces of the UAE’s Special Olympic athletes – came to a stop at Abu Dhabi International Airport at around 5.15pm.
Members of the Armed Forces lined a blue carpet as a marching band filled the air with the sounds of traditional Emirati music and men performed a yowla – a local dance.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, and Hessa Buhumaid, Minister of Community Development, attended the welcoming ceremony which saw the torch, known as the Flame of Hope, carried down from flight EY90 to the sound of trumpets.
It was handed to Sheikh Nahyan and Ms Buhumaid, who were accompanied by Chaica Al Qassimi , an award-winning martial arts athlete who met with Pope Francis last month when he signed a Special Olympics football.
The torch began its journey with a torch-lighting ceremony in Athens on Wednesday.
The baton has passed on to the UAE which, by hosting the biggest games, has pledged to uphold the cause of people with intellectual disabilities.
The torch is seen as symbol of courage and part of a global effort to use sports to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
By bringing the Games to the Middle East and North Africa region for the first time, the UAE has launched a movement to remove the stigma associated with disabilities.
Khalfan Al Mazrouei, managing director of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi explained the significance behind the torch and the plan for change.
“The Special Olympics Flame of Hope has become a globally-recognized symbol for inclusion, courage and diversity,” he said.
“In two weeks’ time, when the World Games officially begin, we will celebrate determination at sports arenas and playing fields across the UAE.
"It is our hope that these World Games will create real long-term change and a future where every person is valued, accepted, and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
The torch is being carried in an Etihad Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner featuring new livery with images of four Emirati Special Olympics athletes.
It is hoped the arrival of the torch will inspire dialogue, create awareness and open up people’s minds to the talents, capabilities and resilience of people with disabilities.
About 100 of the UAE’s landmarks will comprise a colourful 10-day itinerary beginning March 4 across the Emirates as the torch is carried by athletes and law enforcement officers, dispersing a message of optimism and aiming to unite communities.
The torch bearers are known as ‘guardians of the flame’ and continue a Special Olympics tradition that began in 1981 when law enforcement officers carried the torch after it was lit in Athens.
The torch run will begin from the Wadi Al Wurayah waterfall in Fujairah on Monday.
Residents have been encouraged to check the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi website for the locations and participate in special ceremonies that will be organised to bring people together.
UAE Special Olympic athletes will then carry the torch into Zayed Sports City Stadium and light the cauldron to mark the start of the games on March 14.
This will kickstart the opening ceremony that promises to be spectacular, with more than 40,000 spectators packed into Zayed Stadium and millions of viewers worldwide expected to tune into live television broadcasts.
The games have the support of the UAE leadership led by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who has outlined national plans to expand opportunities for people of determination.
Sheikh Mohammed along with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, took part in the first Walk Unified in January last year in Abu Dhabi’s Umm Al Emarat Park to integrate people with intellectual disabilities in community events.