Special Olympics athletes return to Saudi Arabia with record medals haul
ABU DHABI: Victorious athletes from Saudi Arabia’s Special Olympics team are returning home with a record haul of medals.
With the Games in Abu Dhabi having drawn to a close, the Kingdom’s triumphant sporting heroes were heading back with a bumper collection of 40 gold, silver and bronze medals.
And the star performers are rightly proud of their achievements against competitors from around the world.
Basketball player Maan Alkhidhr, from the city of Sakaka in northwestern Saudi Arabia, won a silver medal with his team and said taking part in the Special Olympics had been the best experience of his life.
“It was amazing,” said Alkhidhr. “I love basketball so much and being in the Games was amazing. The tournament was the best experience for me and something completely new. I got to meet people from all over the world.”
The 25-year-old, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and a heart condition and given a life expectancy of 12 months, said the Games were “a gift from God.”
Alkhidhr was among the athletes who captured the hearts of everyone on the Saudi team, by cheering on his fellow athletes as they battled for a place on the winners’ podium.
As the Saudi female basketball players scooped gold in the championship final, Alkhidhr described the entire Special Olympics squad as having performed “like soldiers.”
He was one of 50 representatives, including 21 women, from Saudi Arabia who joined more than 7,500 athletes from 190 nations taking part in the Games. It was the first time in the sporting event’s 50-year history that it had been held in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Saudi team’s trophy tally included 18 gold, nine silver, and 13 bronze medals, a record for the Kingdom.
The squad won seven golds, one silver, and three bronzes in athletics; one undefeated gold in women’s unified basketball; one silver in men’s basketball; three golds, three silvers, and four bronzes in bocce; one silver and one bronze in bowling; three golds, one silver, and one bronze in powerlifting; one gold in roller skating; two golds, one silver, and three bronzes in swimming; one gold and one silver in table tennis; and one bronze in triathlon.
Saudi powerlifter Hassan Alhadhariti was thrilled to see months of hard work pay off as he won gold in his weight division.
The 23-year-old lifted an impressive 292.5 kilograms, sealing top spot in his combined squat, bench press and deadlift competition held at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC).
“I am proud of myself because the competition was pretty intense and thank God that I came out on top, as I was determined to win,” said Alhadhariti.
His grueling training schedule before the Games saw him shed 3 kilograms to make the 65 kilograms weight limit for athletes. “I had to work out and jog a lot to lose the weight,” he added.
Alhadhariti was cheered on by his coach, team managers and fellow athletes who filled the powerlifting venue to support their friend. “They all came to support me, and they were patient and really helped me,” he said.
Saudi table tennis player Naif first took up the sport four years ago, and trained for two hours a day, five times a week, in the run-up to the Games. His hard work was rewarded with two medals for his country.
“It was a blast,” said Naif. “The competitions and all my brothers supporting me was the highlight. I was very excited all week. I was just praying to win for my home country.”
He added that the inspirational support of his parents had been crucial in helping him to realize his potential.
High school student and fellow table tennis player Faris Almateq practices for three hours a day, six days a week, and for months had been driven by the thought of representing the Kingdom in the Special Olympics.
“I wanted to make my parents and my coach proud, as well as my country,” he said. Almateq learnt to play table tennis by watching YouTube videos but now has a coach to help hone his skills.
He added that his greatest source of encouragement was his mother. “She tells me if I lose, that it’s ok and that I can train to become better.”
Dr. Heidi Alaudeen Alaskary, director of diversity and inclusion and partnerships at Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, told Arab News she “couldn’t be prouder” of the performances put in by every athlete on the Saudi Arabian team.
“The team have done simply amazing, they have all done incredible. Of course, they are excited about the medals, but what is even more beautiful is the camaraderie, the friendships, and the support. The boys came to support the girls, the girls came to support the boys. Families are here.
“The positive energy, the excitement…it has been beautiful. Some of our athletes, when they first came, their posture was a bit slumped. At the end of the competition, they were standing tall. Their whole faces have changed. It has been amazing.
“It has been more than I hoped for. I have been working in the area of disabilities for more than 20 years and this has been the best experience of my career.”
Alaskary said she hoped the Games would leave a lasting legacy for the region in terms of disability and inclusion.
“We hope this is not just a fleeting event, that it really has a lasting impact. Our team is already talking about employment programs, how to maximize this showcasing of their abilities, and ways of finding more opportunities for these athletes to go out and show their abilities.
“It is heartwarming. My phone has been flooded with messages, families back home telling me about their kids and people in their families who have disabilities. It’s just opened up the floodgates to share stories and accept everyone,” added Alaskary.
“Some of our athletes are married, have kids, jobs, aspirations, and want to go to university. It is amazing the amount of hope they have.
“So, the hope for the legacy is, that this is not just one of those things to look back on and think it was an amazing time. I would like people to look back and say that was when everything amazing in their life started.”
Alaskary said, like any other country, when it comes to disability and inclusion, Saudi Arabia has its “pockets of excellence” and other areas which need improvements.
“We have some great silos of excellence. But we all have areas where we need to do better. The question is, how do we bridge everything together to provide a service that supports each and every person, while meeting their lifelong needs?”