Special Olympics World Games ends but leaves its mark on Abu Dhabi

'Best Games in the history of the Special Olympics movement' draws to a close

Nicole Scherzinger was centre stage, but for once she was not the star of the show.

All eyes were on the huge screen behind her as the Special Olympics closing ceremony was under way on Thursday night.

More interesting than the former Pussycat Dolls singer were videos of just a few of the countless acts of skill, strength and courage that lit up UAE sporting arenas over the past week.

And the athletes were determined to make the most of their final moment in the spotlight.

Even before the event started there were dancing and conga lines snaking across what would usually be the playing surface in Zayed Sports City Stadium, as local DJ Saif and Sound warmed up the crowd.

Abu Dhabi, March 21, 2019.  Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
 Victor Besa/The National

Then fired-up Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver, nephew of John F Kennedy, delivered a speech that was at once admiring, passionate and inspirational.

The son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was emphatic when he declared the UAE event "the best Games in the history of the Special Olympics movement".

Mr Shriver offered an inspiring message to the thousands of athletes in front of him: “You deserve to belong wherever you are.

"For some of you it's not going to be easy. It's not always the World Summer Games, life is tough. Sometimes, the world can be cruel.

“So be tough. Be tougher than the tough. Be strong. Be ready. Be you and be free.

"And carry this flame of hope behind me back to your home countries and set the world on fire.”

It went down well, but not as well as the speech by Tommy McCobb, one of the 20,000 volunteers who helped to make the Games a success.

A badminton official, Mr McCobb told thousands how he channelled his attention deficit disorder and autism to help him meet his goals.

“Today I feel included,” he said. “For the past six days I’ve truly felt appreciated. I don’t want the Games to end.”

Abu Dhabi, March 21, 2019.  Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Closing Ceremony. T. SHriver and Noura.Victor Besa/The National Victor Besa/The National

His final comments were barely audible over the roar of applause. It’s not every day you upstage a member of the Kennedy clan.

Later, there was another appearance by Scherzinger, along with a tribute to the volunteers and a scaled-back athletes parade.

The Games anthem, Right where I'm Supposed to be, was played on the big screen with stars such as Avril Lavigne, who performed the number at the opening ceremony and made surprise appearances to watch Games events, apparently absent.

George Weah, the footballer who is now Liberian president, gave a speech reminding the crowd that he had once been officially crowned the world’s best football player.

“I know the power and potential that sports can have in transforming lives,” the former AC Milan and Al Jazira forward said.

Mr Weah said that football had catapulted him from humble beginnings to stardom.

During the handover ceremony, Sweden, which will host the 2021 Winter Special Olympics, was officially passed the baton before Keala Settle, star of The Greatest Showman, was delivered to the stage on a giant lift.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - March 21, 2019: Performers participate in the closing ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, at Zayed Sports City. 
( Ryan Carter for the Ministry of Presidential Affairs )

Singing This is Me, Settle sent the crowd home happy. Her performance was accompanied by spectacular fireworks shot from the stadium roof.

With the Games over, attention will turn to their legacy.

Among spectators at the closing ceremony, there was widespread agreement that the Special Olympics would achieve lasting change and a new government drive to promote inclusion in schools received wide backing.

“It’s been really wonderful,” said Najoua Hidri, 30, a Tunisian physical education teacher at a government school in Abu Dhabi.

Ms Hidri was at Special Olympics events to cheer on her pupils, one of whom was playing for the UAE in football, and took her two sons to the closing ceremony.

“I think things will change for the better,” she said. “Because they brought the event here, they are going to introduce more special needs pupils to the schools. I think that’s a really good thing.”

Sarah Stoll, a special needs teacher at Brighton College in Abu Dhabi, also backed the new approach.

Ms Stoll helped to train the UAE women’s swimming team, which was set up only six and a half months ago as the first to represent the nation in an Olympics-sanctioned event.

But there are already plans to keep the swimmers together.

Ms Stoll has also heard of plans to set up a triathlon in the UAE for disabled athletes.

“Socially, the Games has helped the players to grow and grow in confidence,” she said.

But along with the new government policies and sports clubs, the Games also generated hundreds of small, personal stories that will help to deliver change.

Abu Dhabi, March 21, 2019.  Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Closing Ceremony. Nicole Scherzinger performs live in the stadium, with her second song, Victorious, written for the Special Olympics. 
Victor Besa/The National Victor Besa/The National

Ms Stoll’s daughter, Charlotte, 16, won a gold medal as a unified partner – a non-disabled athlete who plays alongside disabled competitors – in bocce.

She also helped her mother to train the UAE swimmers.

“Before I probably wouldn’t have gone over to talk to people with intellectual disabilities; not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt I didn’t know how,” Charlotte said.

“But because of the Games we’ve grown really close. Now I just feel like we’re friends.”