ABU DHABI: Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud led a delegation of athletes from Saudi Arabia to the UAE as the 100-day countdown to the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 – the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world – officially began on Tuesday.
More than 7,500 athletes from 192 nations will compete in the 2019 World Games – the first to be held in the MENA region – next March. Ahead of the landmark event, Princess Reema, speaking exclusively to Arab News, said that Saudi Arabia’s strong commitment to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will mean the Kingdom will continue to focus on absorbing into society people regardless of ability.
“The Agenda for Sustainable Development pledges to ‘leave no one behind,’ but the fact is, by virtue of our heritage, the Middle East has always been an inclusive society,” said Princess Reema, the deputy of planning and development for the General Sports Authority(GSA). “The Special Olympics is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our athletes and to come together as a community.”
Sara Ahmed Felemban of Jeddah is eagerly awaiting her chance to shine at the World Games. The 17-year-old will be part of a 51-strong team of athletes from Saudi Arabia who will be landing in the UAE capital next March to show off their skills in a range of sporting competitions – and represent their country to the best of their ability.
A student at Saudi Arabia’s Help Center, a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the quality of life of individuals with intellectual disabilities, Sara was born with Down Syndrome.
“It was evident from birth,” said her mother, Bridget Somers, who spoke of her pride at her daughter’s hard work and dedication to practice ahead of the 2019 event.
Sara, who will be competing in Bocce at the World Games, said she feels honored to be representing the Kingdom on the world sporting stage.
“I am very proud and I am practicing every day,” she said. “I am happy and very excited.”
The teenager has dreams of clutching a gold medal on the podium. “I hope. I hope. That would be great.”
Athletes from around the world are set to descend on Abu Dhabi in March to show-off their sporting skills. (Blue Cam Photography)
Her teammate Maan Al-Zaid, a 25-year-old from Al-Jouf region, also with Down Syndrome, is preparing himself for the basketball competitions of the Games.
“First of all, I would love to participate in all sports. I am very proud to be Saudi. I think all Saudis as champions. We are working very hard and we are working more and more to get positive results.”
And does Al-Zaid hope to also win a medal? “More than one. Definitely more than one!“
Dr. Heidi Alaudeen Alaskary, director of diversity and inclusion and partnerships at Saudi Arabia’s GSA, said the Kingdom has set up a dedicated training camp in Saudi Arabia for the team.
“We are very, very excited about our participation next March. We have a delegation across a number of different sports, be it basketball, swimming, track and field, roller-skating,” Alaskary said.
“It is a very diverse group. The overall delegation is very big too. It is not only that we are sending athletes and coaches, we are sending a number of our volunteers here to support the UAE. They include sending volunteers such as speech therapists to help support the health programs in the UAE.”
Alaskary said including those with disabilities into society has always been a key focus of decision-makers within the Kingdom. “It is very important to realize it has always been about the community, and in order for the community to shine we need to take care of all individuals; whether they are elderly, or young, whether they are able or a person with a disability; whether they are female and male – everyone is part of our community,” she said.
“And it is critical for us that for our country to thrive we have to include everyone. Ten years ago, in 2008, we signed the United Nations ratification on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we are constantly developing and modifying the programs to support those with disabilities in the country.
“I think you can expect to see a whole spectrum of more programs going forward.”
Alaskary said of about 20 million people living in Saudi Arabia, about 1.7 million have self-declared as having either a physical or intellectual disability.
The Saudi Arabia Special Olympics delegation visited Abu Dhabi on Tuesday as part of the World Games Unified Summit to mark 100 days until the World Games, which aims to encourage people with disabilities – or “People of Determination” – into sport.
During the event, key findings of the first in-depth study examining perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities across the MENA region were revealed.
It found that about two thirds (65 percent) of those living across the Middle East and North Africa state that they are aware of government initiatives on disability, but less than half (46 percent) believe governments are highly supportive of those with disabilities.
Based on public-opinion surveys in eight countries – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco – the study also revealed that the vast majority of people in MENA believe that people with intellectual disabilities can perform in sport. However, they are more likely to believe that they can only play as part of a team comprised of players with intellectual disabilities.
While almost eight out of 10 people (78 percent) surveyed believed that people with intellectual disabilities can form friendships with people without intellectual disabilities, less than two-thirds (62 percent) thought that those with intellectual disabilities can understand news and events around them, half (55 percent) felt they could make their own decisions, and slightly more than a third (39 percent) believed those with intellectual disabilities could handle an emergency situation.
While the full study – commissioned by the Local Organizing Committee of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 and Special Olympics MENA to get a better understanding of community attitudes toward disability – will be revealed in March next year to coincide with the Special Olympics World Games, key findings were previewed at the World Games Unified Summit.
At the event Reem Al-Hashemi, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, announced that 22 new nations have signed up for the upcoming World Games, taking the total number of programs participating to its highest ever at 192. Mohammed Abdulla Al-Junaibi, chairman of the higher committee of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, said the announcement means the Special Olympics programs “will now be accessible to thousands of people who may not have previously had access to sports opportunities. These opportunities will aid them in building courage and confidence, forging new friendships and experiencing joy.”
Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, UAE Minister of State and CEO of ADNOC Group, said the “courage of the participating athletes will reflect the unity and inclusion that define the Special Olympics movement and are in fact a mirror image of the values of the UAE,” while Shamma bint Suhail bin Faris Al-Mazrui, UAE Minister of State for Youth Affairs, said “through the power of sport, community and collaboration, the Special Olympics offers the world one of the most powerful stories of inclusion.”
100: Days until the Special Olympics World Games takes center stage in Abu Dhabi
192: Countries that will represented in the Games – a record number
14: Days that Special Olympic events will run for
7: Days of sporting events during the 2019 World Games
24: Officially sanctioned Olympic-style sports that will take place in world-class venues throughout Abu Dhabi
7,500: Athletes set to compete
3,000: Coaches training athletes ahead of the event
20,000: Volunteers needed for the Games
400,000: Fans expected to cheer on competitors during the Games
50: Years the Special Olympics have been running
In the UAE, Clari Lehmkuhl, 28, will be the sole female tennis player representing her country. “I am very, very excited. I practice every single day at Zayed Sports City and I hope to do my country proud. I am hoping for gold.”
Gabrielle Snowden, 27, is the UAE’s female representative for golf. “I am very excited. I want to win, but mainly I just want to make lots of new friends.”
Chaica Sultan Al-Qasimi, a member of the UAE’s SEDRA Legacy Project for the Special Olympics and a black belt in karate, said the World Games will welcome the world to the UAE and the Middle East and “showcase the best in the human spirit.”
“As someone who loves sports and loves my home and country, I am deeply happy that the World Games will be hosted here in the UAE,” said Al-Qasimi, who has Down Syndrome and practices martial arts, kickboxing, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu.
“I am honored to have been selected from to participate in the World Games next year. It is an incredible opportunity to show the world we are a unified nation that believes in equal opportunities for all.
“Ever since I discovered I have Down Syndrome, I never saw myself as someone with a disability. I want to share the message with the world that people of determination can achieve anything they want to in life.”
The World Games feature more than a week of grueling competition among thousands of athletes. Through media coverage of the Games, the stories and achievements of athletes are seen by millions of people worldwide. It will take place from March 14-16, 2019.