Special Olympics torch lit at Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi

Thousands turn out to witness the flame as it sails across the Corniche

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The Special Olympics World Games torch has been lit during a notable ceremony at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

Roads were closed, helicopters buzzed overhead and hundreds of volunteers cheered as the silver torch was set ablaze in the shadow of the installation dedicated to Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father.

The flame arrived in the UAE from Athens last week on board an Etihad flight, three weeks prior to the Games’ opening ceremony on March 14.

In the interim, it will travel the length and breadth of the country, taking in historic sites in all seven emirates.

The event at the Founder’s Memorial was organised by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and thousands of Adnoc employees welcomed the Torch Run team.

“It gives me great pleasure to see so many of you at the memorial as we celebrate the arrival of the Flame of Hope,” said Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of State and Adnoc Group chief executive.

“As the flame embarks on its tour of the UAE, this moment provides a powerful and timely reminder of our … responsibility to create a more inclusive community.”

On Sunday, the rain, high winds and dust storms stayed away as the ceremony began after lashing much of the country over the weekend.

The torch was carried across the Corniche breakwater in a convoy of 12 boats and then on to the Founder’s Memorial.

Thousands of volunteers, organisers and athletes, set to take part in the Games, cheered as the flame was lit.

From Monday it will travel on to Fujairah to kickstart a 10-day journey around the Emirates called the Flame of Hope torch run.

Beginning from Fujairah’s Wadi Wurayah, the torch will be carried by athletes and police officers – known as guardians of the flame ­– past about 100 of the UAE’s landmarks, including the Burj Al Arab, Jebel Jais, Fujairah Fort and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

It will then head to the Zayed Sports City Stadium on March 14 for the opening ceremony.

John Newnan is head of the “law enforcement torch run committee”, a global body of police officials who raise funds for the Special Olympics in their spare time.

“Our mission over the next 10 days is simple,” said Mr Newnan. “Create excitement for the 2019 Games, build awareness and champion acceptance and inclusion for people with determination.”

Members of the public have been urged to follow the torch’s journey across the UAE, particularly as it shines a spotlight on landmarks in the Northern Emirates.

"It's about modern buildings such as Burj Al Arab but also about culture and heritage such as the forts you will see in the Northern Emirates," said Lama Zalat, of the Games' local organising committee.

“People who are following the torch will see us stop at landmarks across the UAE and we wanted to start at the Founder’s memorial, one of the most important ones.

“It is a huge team effort to pull off a torch run across the whole UAE.”

Ms Zalat said organisers had to close registration for volunteers for the Games because of the overwhelming response.

Out of a 20,000 target, some 21,000 people had signed up, with offers still flooding in.

“It is an incredible feeling and it is monumental for the Middle East because the torch is a beacon of light for inclusion,” she said.

A number of volunteers, including those from oil giant Adnoc, were at Sunday's lighting ceremony.

Saeed Al Jasmi, 36, said he would be aiding Special Olympian Omar Al Shami, 17, in the freestyle swimming.

"It is an honour and privilege," Mr Al Jasmi said. "I'll be next to Omar, I'll support him and give him all the tips. He is very determined, very enthusiastic and would love to win."

Another Adnoc volunteer, Khalid Hamza, 31, revealed he would be helping out with the volleyball competition.

Mr Hamza, 31, plays for the UAE national team and said players were deeply committed to the sport. Each team of six is divided into three people of determination and three athletes.

“We help them practice twice a week,” he said. “We talk to them and let them know how to stand in the court.

“It’s a pleasure to play and to help them. The athletes are really happy and have even watched our matches.”

It is the first time that the Games is being hosted in the Middle East as the UAE seeks to end any stigma associated with disabilities.

The Games will be held from March 14-21 in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with some 7,500 athletes and 3,000 coaches from more than 190 nations set to take part in 24 Olympic-style sports.