The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 started off in spectacular style by making a bold statement of inclusiveness and acceptance at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the Capital. There were 7,500 athletes from 200 countries, a mini world, inside the stadium, making this the most games in the 50-year history of the Special Olympics.
The games was opened by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces on Thursday.
"We are proud to be here with the Special Olympics athletes. We send a message to the world that anything is possible with determination," Sheikh Mohamed said in his inaugural speech as the 'Flame of Hope' was lit.
Minister of State for Youth Affairs Shamma Al Mazrui said the games in the Capital was realisation of the vision of the UAE leadership.
"It's magic to see something so close to our hearts here. Through Special Olympics, we are making the invisible visible. The elements of inclusion are all around us. Let's now light the world with the UAE chapter of Special Olympics," she said.
Haseeb Abbasi, a special athlete, said it was time for the world to stand united with the people of determination. "You are sending a message of hope and victory to everybody in the world. You are the true champions."
Even before these inspirational words and start of the event, there was an air of optimism and determination as the athletes made their way to the stadium through the lanes of Abu Dhabi. And once they gathered outside the stadium, it was a blend of diverse nationalities but with a common aim - to tell the world that people of determination had the right to excel in every aspect of their lives. 'We are the determined, we can do anything' - was the rallying call by them.
The pre-show started with unified choir 'Woven World' - a performance celebrating the strengths of a world full of diversity but yet together for a noble cause.
Now United, a global pop group featuring 14 singing and dancing artists from 14 countries, performed during the opening ceremonies. The group, whose members ranged between 16-20 years old, put on a spectacular performance with their hit singles including Summer in the City, All Day, How We Do it and Beautiful Life.
Later, the athletes' marched into the stadium to rousing ovation by around 40,000 fans in the stands. All the athletes upheld the words of their oath: 'Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt'. And once the athletes were seated, they too joined the celebrations. Once all teams were settled, it was an 'I-was-there' moment as the UAE united the world inside a stadium.
This was followed by unified speech which was a message for unity by the members of the local organising committee. The sporting icons of the country then raised the Olympic Flag. And at the end, the 'Flame of Hope' arrived from a raise platform and was lit after the torch parade thereby starting the movement for an unified world.
From Friday till it will last on March 21, it will be a celebration of sportsmanship, grit and determination to create an all-inclusive world.
A show of solidarity
It was a show of solidarity for the determined at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games by the Abu Dhabi residents who turned out in huge numbers to teach their children a thing or two about inclusion.
"It is important that children from a young age understand the concept of inclusion. I wanted my kids to witness how these athletes have overcome their mental and physical disabilities," said British expat Victoria Fell.
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The mother of three said she understands how important it is for a society to accept people with special abilities because she had an aunt with Down Syndrome.
"My aunt had to be sent away from the family when she was around three, and institutionalized. Back in that time, there was no support and no choice to care for them."
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"But I am very glad to see that the UAE society is open to inclusion and treat them as part of the same community."
Indian parents Anisha Batra Chacko and Sunij Chacko were also at the packed Zayed Sports City Stadium with their five-year old son, Vihaan. Their daughter Arianna is singing in the choir. "It is never too early to learn about inclusion," said Chacko.
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"We are so happy that our daughter could be a part of something so big and so meaningful that teaches them to value humanity. It also encourages them to be friends with others who are different from her yet much stronger than them in many ways," she said.
For many parents, watching the Special Olympics with their children is also an opportunity to teach them the importance of "not giving up."
"It is a huge encouragement for children and I want my son to look at these athletes and learn that if they can go out and do it, there is no excuse why he cannot. Giving up is not an option," said Leah Watson, a Dubai resident.
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Sajjan Varkey, a teacher from the Abu Dhabi Indian School, who was at the stadium with a group of his students, could not agree more.
"We are here to show solidarity to the determined. It is also a strong message and life lesson for our children that life will throw up challenges but the real winner does not give up."
Seventh grader Ashnel Saldanha said he and his friends were amazed to see the stunning talent and sheer grit shown by the athletes. "It tells us that nothing is impossible."
"We are all here to support them and also show that we believe in inclusion," he added.
By Ashwani Kumar and Anjana Sankar
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