Special Olympics World Games begin with spectacular show of unity

Tens of thousands attend opening ceremony in Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City stadium

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It was the moment everyone who had worked so hard over the past four years had been waiting for. The training, the travel and the anticipation were over. Now the Games could begin.

The overcast skies that lingered over Zayed Sports City during the day had cleared and a blazing sun began to set over the famous concrete arches. By 7pm, everything was ready.

A choir of children with and without intellectual disabilities kicked off the evening’s entertainment with a song about unity and inclusivity sung in English and Arabic.

Next, the task first fell to DJ Bliss, who set the upbeat tone from the start. Perched on top of a gigantic TV screen overlooking the stadium, DJ Bliss channelled Pink Floyd's David Gilmour during the band's The Wall era and got the crowd going.

Then a countdown heralded that important moment that the tens of thousands of people in the stadium were waiting for: the athletes’ parade.

First up were Greece, a team from the historical home of the Olympic Games. They came fast and furious – buoyed by the music of superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold. A name familiar to many who came of age in the 1990s, the DJ rolled back the years with a pulsating set to accompany the 100-minute parade. Huge cheers erupted for Nepal, dressed in their traditional attire. Then came Kazakhstan and Tajikistan with the Central Asian republics enjoying huge support from the stands.

Halfway through the parade, Ghana almost stole the show with a vibrant display of colour and exuberance.

But there was more to come. The stadium erupted when the Palestinian team entered and took their seats, with people getting to their feet and chanting for their homeland. Syria and Egypt also generated some of the loudest cheers, only superseded by the roar for the host team.

It was unsurprising, perhaps, that teams from India, Pakistan and the Philippines also enjoyed huge support, with so many residents from those countries living in the UAE. But Mexico, Macedonia and even Namibia also enjoyed a raucous reception as they came through.

Teams from India, Kuwait, Lebanon and Pakistan were next to pass through, while the Samoan team performed a haka, or war dance, for the crowds. The Saudi Arabian team had female athletes at the Games for the first time. Then came Iran, Israel, Jamaica, Qatar and Yemen.

Today, with your presence and participation, we send a message to the world that nothing is impossible when there is determination.

More than 190 nationalities live in the UAE and so many of them came out in droves to support their home country on Thursday evening. Close to 7,500 athletes from more than 190 nations walked through the main stage and took their assigned seats on the pitch, although many would use them only towards the end of the ceremony, dancing with other athletes in the aisles.

Zayed Sports City Stadium was transformed into a colourful United Nations. Emirati volunteers guided each team out and into their seats, while athletes danced, sang and even formed human chains as they waited for the parade to finish.

But there was still just one more team to come. The crowd could sense it, turning on their lights in their smartphones as the stadium turned into a sky of stars. The UAE, host nation, entered to a raucous reception with one of the biggest contingents of the night to the tune of traditional Emirati music. And the number one fan of all, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was there to greet them, flanked by King Hamad bin Isa of Bahrain, and Rulers and other leaders from each of the Emirates.

Aliasgar Kachwala, 48, took his son Mohammed, 19, to see the opening ceremony, which was organised with input from people with disabilities.

Mohammed, who has special needs, is an aspiring Special Olympic swimmer and one of 21,000 volunteers who will, on Friday, begin the huge task of supporting the Games and its participants.

"This is an important event and I wanted my family to see what was happening here tonight," Mr Kachwala, an Indian who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1998, told The National.

“I have a child [who has intellectual disabilities] and I want him to be connected to this and to see what is happening,” he said.

Once all the athletes were seated, a sports-inspired dance performance began, punctuated by lines of poetry.

Special Olympic athletes were paired with other athletes, such as Michelle Kwan, to represent some of the 26 sporting events that will be held next week.

Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, led the speeches, thanking Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed for sending a message to the world, by hosting the Games, that now is the time for tolerance.

“In a world of tension and division, you are a ripple of compassion, a wave of compassion, and the entire world of the Olympics sends you our thanks,” he said.

As the ceremony began to near it’s end a tribute was paid to Eunice Shriver, to whom the more than 50 years of Special Olympics can be traced back to.  Next, the Special Olympics flag was raised beside the UAE’s banner and the Special Olympics oaths were read by athletes, coaches and the referees.

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

“We welcome you to the Home of Zayed, your second country,” the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi said.

"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," he said.

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

Pausing to invite the four athletes surrounding him to read the opening statement, they said: “We announce officially the opening the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi 2019.”

The evening culminated in a dramatic lighting off the cauldron, which raised up through the centre of the stadium as fireworks exploded overhead, signalling the official start to the largest humanitarian sporting event of the year.

Avril Lavigne, Hussain Al Jasmi, Tamer Hosni and Luis Fonsi rounded off the ceremony with their rendition of the official Olympic anthem, Right Where I Am Supposed to Be, and bringing one of the UAE's biggest parties to an end.

It was an evening of solidarity, inclusivity and humanity. Truly, it was a celebration by the determined, for the determined.