Special Olympics athletes return to Saudi Arabia with record medals haul

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Victorious athletes from Saudi Arabia’s Special Olympics team are returning home with a record haul of medals. (AN photo)
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“I wanted to make my parents and my coach proud, as well as my country,” Faris Almateq said. (AN photo)
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Victorious athletes from Saudi Arabia’s Special Olympics team are returning home with a record haul of medals. (AN photo)
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Hassan Alhadhariti was thrilled to see months of hard work pay off as he won gold in his weight division. (AN photo)
Updated 22 March 2019
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Special Olympics athletes return to Saudi Arabia with record medals haul

  • Basketball player Maan Alkhidhr, from the city of Sakaka in northwestern Saudi Arabia, won a silver medal with his team
  • “It was amazing,” said Alkhidhr. “I love basketball so much and being in the Games was amazing

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?”


Tazkarti ticketing platform draws criticism in Egypt ahead of Africa Cup of Nations

Updated 18 June 2019
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Tazkarti ticketing platform draws criticism in Egypt ahead of Africa Cup of Nations

  • Tazkarti will be the sole source of tickets for the tournament

CAIRO: Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) host country Egypt has launched an online ticketing platform called Tazkarti, which will be the sole source of tickets for the tournament, which begins June 22.

Its aim is to combat ticket touts and black market sales for the continent’s biggest football tournament, and to ensure that ticket prices remain fixed at the price decided by the AFCON organizing committee. It is also a measure of the steps Egypt is taking to ensure that the tournament passes peacefully. 

Football stadiums have been almost entirely empty since 2011 because of security issues after long-time President Hosni Mubarak stepped down following national protests in which football fans played a major role, resulting in violent, often lethal, clashes with police and between rival fans.

In 2012, Port Said stadium witnessed a riot that left 72 Al-Ahly supporters dead after a pitch invasion by Masri supporters at the end of a Premier League game. In 2015, 19 Zamalek fans were killed and 20 injured when police attempted to disperse large crowds making their way into a Cairo stadium to attend a Premier League game. 

Those were just two of several incidents that meant authorities imposed a ban on people attending football matches or severely restricted the number of people that could do so.

Every AFCON ticket purchased via Tazkarti will be scanned at the stadium to ensure it matches the holder’s “Fan ID.” If it does not, the holder will not be allowed into the ground.

Tickets for matches featuring the Egyptian national team range from 200 to 2,500 Egyptian pounds ($12-$150), while other matches range from 100 to 500 Egyptian pounds ($6 to $30).

While those prices might sound affordable to outsiders, in a country where a doctor earns around $90 to $179 per month, many have found themselves priced out of the tournament already.

“I am a married dentist with three kids. If I want to attend a match with my family, I would have to pay 1,000 pounds ($60), (not including) transportation and snacks,” Dr. M. Sheta, who lives in Damietta, told Arab News.

“To book a cinema ticket nowadays ranges between 70 and 100 pounds and a good meal costs 100 pounds minimum. If I can afford that, then I can afford AFCON tickets,” said a housewife in Mansoura, who asked to remain anonymous.

Plenty of young Egyptians took to social media to express their displeasure with the ticket prices.

“This is a clear message that middle-class Egyptians are not welcome,” said Ahmed Zahran.

“I would rather pay a total of 10 pounds at any coffee shop and watch the matches there,” said Ahmed El-Tlabanty.

Some fans believe that the prices have been set high to discourage Ultras (the most passionate football fans) from attending.

An administrator of the “Ultras Ahlawy” Facebook group, while stressing that he hoped supporters “have fun watching AFCON,” asked Arab News: “Why would I pay 200 pounds to watch a match? I do not (make hundreds of pounds).”

Aside from issues with the high prices, people have also been widely critical of the technical performance of the new ticketing platform, which has been under pressure from high demand for Fan IDs.

“You guys are so disrespectful and unprofessional. I’ve been trying to reach out for more than two weeks and no one is answering — not on messenger nor the hotline. You made the whole championship experience the worst,” wrote Fatma El-Dardiry. “I called your customer service at least five times, placed three complaints and texted you on Facebook more than once. Now, the tickets of cat 1 and 2 for the opening match have already sold out.”