Special Olympics Opening Ceremony: Abu Dhabi World Games declared open - as it happened

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed declares the games open

Powered by automated translation

Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi was officially opened on Thursday.

The ceremony featured performances from global superstars including Avril Lavigne and an athletes parade featuring 200 nations.

The climax of the event at Zayed Sports City was the lighting of the cauldron, completing the Flame of Hope torch run which began in Athens and has touched each Emirate across the UAE.

The National was on the ground, bringing you the latest pictures, reaction and breaking news from the opening ceremony.

Drag to explore the 360-degree video:

Read more of The National's coverage | Opinion: Everyone is a winner at the Special Olympics


10:40 Let the games begin!

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 MARCH 2019. Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: None: National.
Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. Antonie Robertson / The National

That's it for our live blog for today. Thank you for experiencing the opening ceremony with us.

Make sure you continue to stay with The National for the latest breaking news, in depth features and moving moments throughout the Special Olympics.

You can follow our latest coverage here and on our Twitter and Facebook pages.


10:20 Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed declares games open

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces declared the Abu Dhabi World Games officially open.

Once the tributes were over and the oaths were read, the torches made their way down into the stadium and Sheikh Mohamed took to the microphone to announce the official start of the Games.

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi said:

"Peace be upon you all, Dear guests, ladies and gentlemen, audience of these World Games, on behalf of my brother His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, we welcome you all to your second home, the Home of Zayed. We have the honour to host the Special Olympics World Games. We're proud to be here with all the Special Olympics athletes and family from all over the world.

"Today, with your presence and participation, we send a message to the world that nothing is impossible when there is determination. Only a strong will can make a difference. A very warm greeting to all the people of determination for their strong will and determination to climb to the top. I also greet the athletes in the playground today for their bravery in representing their countries and for being a source of inspiration to everyone.

"Dear sons and daughters, I am delighted to watch and support you. Everyone in the UAE supports you and takes pride in you."


22:00 Special Olympic cauldron lit as oaths taken and flag raised

The journey of the flame of hope ended as it lit the cauldron in Zayed Sports City.

Starting from Athens, the flame has been carried by law enforcement officials and athletes across every emirate in the UAE.

Athletes took the oath of the Special Olympic Games, as the flag of the games was raised.

Two athletes, carrying the flame, were given Arabic coffee, to give them energy to enter Zayed Sports City.

Refreshed by the traditional welcome drink, they ran into the stadium to light the flame.


ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 14 MARCH 2019. Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. Torch Ceremony. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: None: National.
Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics at Zayed Sports City. Antonie Robertson/The National

Wristbands placed on each seat at Zayed Sports City light up at once, creating a sea of glowing lights across the Abu Dhabi stadium.


21:48 ‘A message of hope’

Shamma bint Suhail Al Mazrui, the Minister of State for Youth, gives a rousing speech telling the athletes how powerful their presence is.

"By your blessings, you send a message to every village, every city and every nation, A message of hope, a message of victory. You are the true champions and we all are proud of you," she says.

"In 850 days, 12,644 volunteers, 305 tireless teammates, and 91 sponsors crossed their finish line, meaning 6943 of the worlds most determined athletes are spending the next 7 days crossing their finish lines," Ms Al Mazrui said.


21:30 'You are a ripple of compassion'

The chairman of the Special Olympics, Tim Shriver delivers a roaring speech to open the Abu Dhabi World Games.

“In the world of tension and division you are a ripple of compassion, a wave of compassion,” Mr Shriver tells the athletes.

"You have already won the gold medals," he says.


Mesmerizing performance shows potential of athletes

A high energy performance, showing the potential and power of the Special Olympic athletes elicits cheers and woops from the crowd.

Six Special Olympics athletes and six world champions have been paired together in a display showing a variety of sports including running, weightlifting and basketball.

Performers are dress in white tracksuits with red baseball caps.

“Together we’ll climb and strive, we’ll always come alive,” a narrator says.


21:08 UAE delegation receives roar of approval as they enter the stadium

The stadium went wild for the Emirati team of some 300 athletes led by senior figures of the government including Minister of State Doctor Sultan Al Jaber to the sound of a Khaleeji pop anthem.

The crowd is singing along to the national anthem as the UAE's flag is raised.

And there were cheers and a standing ovation for Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who stood and waved to the crowd from the VIP stand.


21:00 Mexican wave ripples around the stadium

There's a celebratory mood in the stadium.

Some teams are forming a conga line around the floor, while a huge Mexican wave ripples around the Zayed Sports City.


20:16 Samoa haka into the stadium

The island nation of Samoa performed their signature dance as they entered the stadium.

Performing the haka, the scary dance designed to be a show of strength, the Samoan team get a large cheer.

But Syria got a huge roar as they entered the stadium. This year they have 98 competitors, up from 15 last time.


20:10 Huge cheers from UAE resident populations

Countries with large populations of UAE residents are receiving raucous welcomes at Sheikh Zayed Sports City.

A big cheer for the South Koreans – there’s a population of about 12,000 here – in their smart dark blazers and white chinos.

There have been large welcomes for India, Palestine and the United Kingdom too.


20:07 Party like its 1998 with Paul Oakenfold

Paul Oakenfold, jumping up and down to a late 1990s trance track, high fives and clasps the hands of the British team, one of the largest in the competition, as they snake their way around the stadium to take their seats by the stage.

Ireland also have big support here and their fans are on their feet cheering the green tracksuited athletes.


20:00 Prince Harry wishes GB team good luck

"You've all been on your own personal journeys to get there, but are united in one shared aim: to break dwon barriers and change attitudes," Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex wrote.


19:50 Gender representation at the World Games

Just over half of the athletes at the World Games are women, the commentator says.

While Saudi Arabia brings women to the games for the first time. Meanwhile, Mauritiania has sent its first female althlete outside of the country.


19:41 Ireland love a party

Behind the scenes, it seems one team simply cannot wait to take to the stage, as spotted by Team USA.

Ireland's team Twitter account confirmed what the video indicates ... they love a party.


19:30 Huge roar for Palestine

Teams are flooding out now: we’ve had the black and yellow print shirts and slacks of Ghana, the traditional rural gowns of the central Asian republics and the sea of red tracksuits of the Chinese team.

Among the biggest cheers have been for Palestine - hundreds of thousands of UAE residents have ties to the nation - and Bahrain and Saudi, our closest neighbours.

The Ghanaian team also had a huge cheer, potentially for their particularly excellent outfits, in a Kente cloth pattern.

The largest team so far is Germany, with just over 150 and who are hosting the next tournament.

They're dressed in grey hats, smart jackets, with a yellow and white striped T-shirt underneath.

DJ Paul Oakenfold is managing to keep the crowd entertained with some very high-energy electronic dance music.


19:15 Athletes parade begins

The procession of Special Olympics athletes was met with woops and cheers from the crowd at Zayed Sports City, as they prepared to welcome the competitors into the stadium.

Greece was the first country to enter the stadium, followed by the Congo.  In total, 200 nations are taking part in the games.

Athletes are waving to the crowd and cheering as they enter the stadium.

Music by DJ Paul Oakenfold welcomes the athletes to the stadium.

Each country's name is being read out and met by a woop from the crowd.


19:00 Special Olympic Opening Ceremony begins

The Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi has begun.

Performers clad in the colours of the Special Olympics are flooded into the stadium to the cheers of the crowd and the raucous sounds of the Emirati DJ Bliss.

The crowds in parts of the stadium are on their feet clapping along.

The stands are busy but still filling up with a few latecomers arriving and there’s a cool breeze in the air.

Bliss has blended the pop anthem C'est La Vie with an Arabic chorus accompaniment before firing into the Queen anthem, We Are the Champions.

“You can do anything and you can win - all of us together” rang out across the stadium as dozens of performers filled the centre field, wearing white, blue, orange and baby blue jumpsuits.


18:40 A pre-show festival of sights and sounds

Zayed Sports City is abuzz with chants, cheers and celebration.

As Al Fursan paint the sky the colours of the UAE flag, teams from around the world celebrate their culture and support their athletes.


18:30 Now United headline pre-show ceremony

Now United, a global pop group featuring 14 singing and dancing artists from 14 different countries, headline the pre-show performance. Antonie Robertson/The National
Now United, a global pop group featuring 14 singing and dancing artists from 14 different countries, headline the pre-show performance. Antonie Robertson/The National

Now United, the global pop group featuring 14 singing and dancing artists from 14 different countries, are headlining the pre-show performance.

The group, which has a sound not dissimilar to High School Musical, combine feel-good lyrics with high energy ensemble dancing.

Dressed in orange jumpsuits, the group's poppy lyrics and hypnotic dance moves are a great way to get the audience warmed up for the opening ceremony.


18:10 Al Fursan fly by as excitement builds for the Special Olympics

In a signature flash of red, blue, white and green, Al Fursan and Etihad Airways flew over Zayed Sports City stadium, painting the sky the colours of the UAE flag.

Thousands of people are pouring into the stadium, as brass bands, traditional dancers and a horseback procession keeps the crowd entertained.

People from Ghana to Sweden are showing their excitement, singing songs and cheering their athletes on.


17:55 First look inside the stadium

The stadium is set for the opening of the Special Olympics.

The first look inside the Special Olympics stadium. Victor Besa/The National
The first look inside the Special Olympics stadium. Victor Besa/The National

White wristbands - that may or may not glow - and a programme of events are waiting on every seat at the stadium in Zayed Sports City.

A wristband and programme of events lie waiting at the opening of Zayed Sports City. Victor Besa/The National
A wristband and programme of events lie waiting at the opening of Zayed Sports City. Victor Besa/The National


17:35 Excitement builds for Special Olympics parade

Thousands of athletes are preparing to walk out in front of the crowd at Zayed Sports City.

Among those walking out will be the chief executive of the United Kingdom's Special Olympics team Michelle Carney, who will be joined by Sebastian Coe, the former track and field athlete and IAAF President.


17:00 The gates open!

The gates to enter the stadium where the opening ceremony will be held have no opened.

For the next two hours there will be a pre-show with live music and entertainment.


16:55 The kingpin: Meet Bill, the 19-games volunteer

There are more than 20,000 volunteers who help guide guests and organise cultural programmes across the capital’s venues.

Some, like Bill, have been helping out for years, while for others this will be their first games and others have intellectual disabilities themselves, approximately 250.

Volunteering at the games will help them get jobs afterwards. They receive training and for them, it is a moment to affect change.


The Flame of Hope's journey from Athens to Abu Dhabi

The lighting of the cauldron with the Special Olympic flame will be one of tonight's highlights. It has been on quite a journey.

The Flame of Hope was lit at a ceremony in Athens last month, beginning a more than two-week-long tour to the opening of the games this evening.

It arrived in Abu Dhabi on a special livery Etihad Airways Boeing 787 and was welcomed by the UAE's leadership and a marching band.

The flame's journey has taken it across every Emirate in the UAE, visiting some of the country's most iconic sites.

The tour began in Fujairah Fort, surrounded by rugged landscape and stone-laden paths.

As the week went on the torch reached thousands of people across the UAE, including the country's highest mountain, young children in Umm Al Quwain, Dubai's Burj Al Arab, Al Ain's Zoo, Al Dhafra fort and finally at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Founder's Memorial.

The torch was carried by Guardians – an army of international law enforcement officers and athletes – who participate in the event every time.

Finally, the Flame of Hope will be passed to a cauldron, where it will continue to burn all week.


Opinion: This is an opportunity to show the world what we can do

Clari Lehmkuhl, a tennis player representing the UAE in the Special Olympics, writes about what the Games means to her.

"Every night when I have gone to sleep, I have dreamt of this event, knowing that in just a few days’ time, it will become a reality when I represent the UAE on home soil.

I have called the UAE my home for 13 years now and I can see how positive the hosting of the World Games has been for people of determination across the country.

It is also a brilliant opportunity for people from all over the world to visit the UAE and experience what an amazing city Abu Dhabi is. There has been a movement for inclusion across the country and it is brilliant to see how much the government is supporting the integration and creation of opportunities for people of determination."


Who started the Special Olympics?

Eunice Kennedy (R) encouraging Special Olympian Karen Fosdick on her way to a gold medal.  (Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Eunice cheers on a young athlete in the early days of the Special Olympics. John Dominis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Over 50 years the Special Olympics has changed the lives of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities.

Its roots can be traced back to one woman: Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

A tribute to Eunice will be held during the opening ceremony and Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics and Eunice's son, will make a speech.

Hayley Skirka, speaks to Eunice's biographer Eileen McNamara on the Kennedy who changed the world.


Everything you need to know about the Special Olympics


'Best ever Special Olympics' to deliver lasting legacy

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.


What to expect from the Opening Ceremony

The pre-show programme at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium begins from 5pm The athlete's parade is expected to begin at 7pm, with a climactic fireworks parade soon after 9.30pm.

Here's the highlights

  • An official opening of the Games
  • A parade of 7,500 athletes
  • Performances from Avril Lavigne, Hussain Al Jassmi, Luis Fonsi
  • Speeches from leaders of the Special Olympics
  • Lighting of the Cauldron and a conclusion to the torch relay
  • A performance of the Special Olympics anthem, raising of the Special Olympics flag and oaths