This piece is dedicated to my friends with determination, who have accompanied me through the whole trip in Abu Dhabi, playing, laughing, singing, drawing me hearts in the air, and holding my hand to show me the way from one venue to the other.
Over 1,000 athletes from 32 countries flew to Abu Dhabi in March for the 9th regional Middle East and North Africa Special Olympics (SO )games, the most recent regional commitment to end discrimination and injustice against persons with intellectual disabilities. The athletes competed across 16 different sports aiming for gold, but more importantly to send a message of determination. “I am a champion,” is the only way each and every SO athlete at the regional games introduced themselves to the whole world.
It was an early celebration of SO movement’s 50th anniversary and a test phase for the world games that will be held for the very first time in a MENA country in less than a year.
At the time of writing I was inspired by a national strategy of the host country to no longer use the term “persons with intellectual disabilities” in reference to Special Olympics athletes, but rather persons with determination, a way to recognize their achievements in different fields.
“I am a champion”
The regional games officially kicked off on March 17, when the delegation of each country held high their national flags as they entered the openeing ceremony in a dazzling parade, led by famous Egyptian actor and SO global ambassador Hussein Fahmy.
Speaking at the ceremony, Shamma El Mazroue, UAE minister of state for youth affairs and chair of the Special Olympics UAE board, affirmed how the preparation process for the games highlighted the many similarities between the vision and message of SO movement and the UAE principles. “Special Olympics carries the torch of a divine message that does not only empower athletes with intellectual disabilities to play, but it empowers the character of the athlete and the entire ecosystem . . . to become all what they can be. And these are exactly the founding principles of the United Arab Emirates,” she told the wide audience.
Special Olympics Regional Games Opening Ceremony - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
President and managing director of Special Olympics MENA Ayman Abdel Wahab started his speech by asking all attendees to stand up in salute for H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. “Your presence means a great deal to all the athletes, their families and all of us in the region, and significantly [supports] our vision of a changing world, a world of common acceptance, inclusion and joyful celebration of the human potential … It is our hope that our vision of acceptance will stem from Abu Dhabi and take root in all nations across the world,” he spoke to the crowd.
President and managing director of Special Olympics MENA Ayman Abdel Wahab with H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. - Photo courtesy of Special Olympics MENA
The athletes then lit the “flame of hope,” signaling the start of the regional games in athletics, aquatics, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, cycling, equestrian, football, gymnastics, handball, powerlifting, table tennis, tennis, roller skating, volleyball and speedball. For the very first time, the regional games also invited 13 other programs from outside the region, including Canada and China.
“What is different in these games is the commitment to a long-term vision of an inclusive nation…With these games, we are sending a message that the Middle East governments and leaders can join in building inclusive countries and not just inclusive events,” Shriver told regional media.
Describing the development of SO movement in the MENA region in relation to the rest of the world, Shriver stressed that SO does not compare but they rather “ask the region to be the best that they can be, which is more difficult.” “I think in some ways the unique contribution of the Middle Eastern region to our movement is the contribution of the courage … because many have operated in very difficult situations, yet they continued,” he told Egypt Today, referring to instability and wars in some countries in the region, such as “Syria, Libya and Iraq.”
The future is “a world where SO movement is the world’s movement for inclusion, teaching children, families and countries how to include,” Shriver said. “The first 50 years have been about opportunity and skill and sport. The next 50 years will be about all these things and inclusion. Instead of focusing only on the people with intellectual disability and building an opportunity for them, we will be thinking about the whole world. You can join SO … I can join, your children, my children, brothers and sisters and everybody,” he explained, referring mostly to the SO Unified Games, where each team consists of persons with and without determination, playing side by side.
I was lucky enough to witness a fair number of the championship games; and If I told you I could not tell the difference from any other ones we see on television, you would probably think I am exaggerating. To be quite fair, there are of course some variations, but you still find the spirit, the enthusiasm, the tension, the frustration in case of a loss and the extreme happiness in case of a win. The inclusion Shriver talks about is easy and doable, if we simply give it a try.
Egypt against UAE, semi-final football match - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
Following the games, the athletes received their medals in award ceremonies delivered by government officials and leaders from around the region, cheering high and holding their countries’ flags with pride and happiness.
Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, who led the Egyptian delegation parade during the opening ceremony and was present to support them throughout the whole event, was chosen to deliver the gold medal to the Egyptian winner in the roller skating event, Sherif Mohamed.
Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali delivers the gold medal to Egyptian rollerskating winner Sherif Mohamed. - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
“I am very proud of the [Egyptian] participants, very proud of their performance, their will and their power,” Wali told Egypt Today.
A total of 115 athletes represented Egypt in the games, including 78 males and 37 females, which is the nation’s biggest participation since it hosted the very first regional SO games in 1999. Our athletes have just come home with 96 medals: 52 gold, 23 silver and 21 bronze, as they competed across all 16 sports.
“I think it is very important for the participants, the families and for society as large to see how determined they [special athletes] are, to believe in their right to participate and to see the real contribution they can make. We are far from full inclusion [in Egypt], but we are working on it. I believe that we are on the right path . . . with the law that was approved a month ago; it protects the rights of the four types of disability. We still have to invest a lot in changing the culture, changing misconceptions and full inclusion in education,” she added.
Left to right: SOI chairman Timothy Shriver, H.E. Mohamed El Junabi, chairman of Abu Dhabi World Games and President and managing director of Special Olympics MENA Ayman Abdel Wahab
“Special Olympics changed my life”
Although getting the most attention, sports in Special Olympics are only the gate to a much broader and diverse mission to empower persons with determination, guide their families, facilitate their inclusion, guarantee their rights, and ensure their good health and well being, among others. As such, the regional games also offered several non athletic programs, including the “initiatives” programs; 9th Regional Families Forum, 9th Regional Youth Summit and the Athletes Leader workshop; as well as the 4th Demonstration of Special Olympics Young Athletes program.
Nihal Fetouni, regional initiatives director, said, “The purpose of all workshops is to create an inclusive world.”
At the youth summit, 10 teams represented their countries, each consisting of one SO athlete, a young man or woman the same age of the athlete, and a mentor. They were introduced to the basics of Special Olympics, and offered guidance and activities to apply locally in order to create inclusive communities.
Hadia Hosny El Said, Africa Badminton champion and two-time Olympian, was present as a mentor for athlete Mariam Naim, 15, and Sanaa Awad, SO volunteer. “This is our first activity together but we have a full year, the three of us, working on activities to promote inclusion and interaction,” El Said said. “When you sit with them and deal with them, it is really hard to get out of it … You feel something is different in the day; they are very pure,” she added, encouraging all professional athletes to volunteer.
“I was not expecting this [high] level [from the athletes] to be honest; however, what matters the most is not winning but the participation, communication and trying hard . . . and putting special and non special together,” she said.
Hadya, Sanaa and Mariam at 9th regional Youth Summit - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
The family program works with the parents; and for the very first time this year, it brought in the siblings to the regional workshops. “All [workshops’] topics are built upon the parents’ needs and what we need from them,” Fetouni said.
The athlete leaders’ workshops train SO athletes who aspire to do more in the organization, such as becoming coaches or public speakers. For the very first time as well, during the regional games, the upcoming leaders were also to review all sports and fill surveys by asking the athletes about their experience at the games and their lifestyle in general.
As for the young athletes demonstration, it was an amazing performance by the children, aged 2 to 7, who are being prepared to get involved in SO sports once they reach the appropriate age.
“I am quite convinced that the earlier you start with any child, the better it is and the more it is going to stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Mary Davis, SOI Chief Executive Officer, told Egypt Today. “The fact that it is a unified program and that you have children from a young age participating in a fun way together means that they will grow up understanding differences and that they will be more open and more exposed towards living in a unified way.”
“We see the future as a unified future . . . It is very important that there is an opportunity in every school, in the MENA region and all over the world, where they have the facility to play in a unified way with our athletes,” Davis added. “It is the only way forward.”
Young Athletes Demonstration - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
For better health, awareness and well being
Apart from the inclusion activities, the Healthy Athletes Screening Program offered free screening in seven medical disciplines throughout the games week; Opening eyes (vision), Special Smiles (dentistry), Fit Feet (podiatry), Fun Fitness (physical therapy), Health Promotion (healthy living) and Strong minds (positive coping strategy).
“Although they would be screened in their own countries, individuals still did not have a complete medical screening. This program aims to uncover unknown medical conditions,” said Dr. Maha Taysir Barakat, director general of Abu Dhabi Health Authority.
We made a stop at Opening Eyes clinic, where athletes pass by different stations, each screening an aspect of their eyesight. In case they need a new pair of eyeglasses, they are offered a free one, provided by SO global partners within a few hours of the exam, often bringing their sight back up to 100 percent.
As we entered the clinic, Mounieme Elouhabi, Moroccan tennis player, had just got a prescription for his new eye-glasses. He had stopped wearing his old ones, but he told us the new ones are good and he would wear them. Elouhabi had been playing for two years; although participating for the first time outside Morocco.
Stefan Schwarz, a global clinical advisor at SO- Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
“The problem here is that many of them [the athletes] never had an eye exam before because practitioners are not trained to examine these people,” said Stefan Schwarz, a global clinical advisor at SO. Persons with intellectual disabilities are also sometimes not self aware of eyesight problems, he added. “For example, if they only see with one eye, the other eye compensates. They feel that they can see; that can cause difficulty especially if they have an injury with the other eye during the sports.”
Pointing out that the awareness problem is spread in all countries, Schwarz explained, “It is not part of the curriculum to treat people with intellectual disability … the majority of eye care professionals over the world are not properly trained.”
When Nada Montaser, a 20-year-old swimmer from Egypt, came to Opening Eyes to get her eyes tested, doctors found the intraocular pressure (IOP) of her right eye was more than double the normal rate, and that it had already damaged her optic nerve. According to Schwartz, if it were not for that screening, Nada would have completely lost her vision soon. And because that eye disease is hereditary, he also brought in her family, checked them and found out her father and sister also had highly elevated pressures. That discovery might have just saved Nada’s eye sight, and her family’s; however, she has to pursue the treatment when she goes home.
Leila Mohamed Mostawe, a senior dental student at the University of Ras Al Khaimah UAE and a volunteer in Special Smiles clinic, also noticed that most of the athletes have “really bad oral hygiene and really low awareness.” “Cote D’ivoire and Canada are really the best. The others don’t really get much care,” she said.
Leila Mohamed Mostawe, a senior dental student at the University of Ras Al Khaimah UAE and a volunteer in Special Smiles clinic- Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
The young doctor shared one case that she had just examined and referred for professional dental care. “An Egyptian athlete came in; and when we asked him if he had pain, he said ‘I have a very bad pain in the morning.’ When we examined him, we found a deep cavity that really needed to be treated. Most probably, they will extract his tooth. I really felt sad for him; that is why we tried to help him as [quickly as we could,” Mostawe said.
Special Smiles clinic also teaches patients about brushing their teeth and flossing, using a crocodile teddy to illustrate the process.
Persons with intellectual disability are usually not able to express their pain or discern signs of illness. Therefore, such checkups are essential to ensure that they are not suffering from any discomfort that they are now aware of.
“The goal is to make the screening and the education available at the local level . . . We need to add more opportunities to see the doctor. We do it at national, regional and international games but we have to do it in local competitions,” Shriver said, speaking of the future of Healthy Athletes program.
MENA makes the leap in Special Olympics movement
Special Olympics MENA is one of SOI’s seven regions, which comprises 22 Arab countries and Iran. The first regional games were held in 1999 in Egypt, witnessing the participation of 206 athletes and 89 coaches. The number of registered athletes in the region reached 20,433 in 2000. Today, it has increased by seven times, reaching nearly 160,000.
“There has never been an Olympic event in the Middle East, of a worldwide nature. So we are coming here to make history, to affirm that in this region, there are governments that are open, tolerant, compassionate, have the value of empathy and respect for difference, and the joy of building a community of inclusion,” Shriver said, affirming that that upcoming historic event will send a message that these values are indeed ones that are rooted and entrenched in the Middle East.