‘I just want to run’: how Special Olympics touches the lives of those with disabilities
▶ NYU Abu Dhabi reveals the state-of-the-art venue that will be used for the regional and world Games
About 1,200 athletes are expected to take part in the Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa Regional Games in March next year
Khadija Al Zaabi does not know how many medals her daughter has won, but she knows that each of them is a milestone.
“There are so many I can’t count them. But every time she gets one of them, she’s a different person – she’s happy,” Ms Al Zaabi said.
Her daughter, Maryam, who has learning difficulties, is one of about 1,200 athletes expected to take part in the Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa Regional Games in Abu Dhabi in March next year.
The larger Special Olympics World Games will be held, also in Abu Dhabi, the following March.
Maryam, a runner, has competed in other events and always comes home with something to show her family.
“I run round and round and I don’t get tired. I am happy when I win. I just want to run,” said Maryam, 29.
She and her friend Shaima Zade, who suffers from cerebral palsy, are members of the Dubai Club for Special Needs. Running is their life, said Shaima’s elder sister Fahmeeda, who is an administrator at the club.
The centre takes them for training for a few hours a day from 5pm.
“Shaima gets ready from 11am. In the morning she gets dressed and just waits for when it’s time to go to the club,” she said.
“Before she joined the club one of her legs used to be curved. Now it’s straight and she is more active.”
New York University Abu Dhabi yesterday unveiled the facilities that will be used for the athletics and power-lifting events at both events. Its Olympic-size swimming pool will also be used.
“NYUAD has world-class facilities as well as a hugely diverse student population who will make brilliant volunteers at the Games,” said Peter Wheeler, chief executive of Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019.
“We are looking forward to working with them to put on the most unified Special Olympics Games in history.”
The 2019 games will feature seven days of competition in 24 sports including basketball, athletics, golf, tennis, cycling and swimming.
“It is vital. It really brings people together,” said Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who won Olympic gold in the 200 metres at London 2012.
“It gives purpose, and just seeing other parts of the world is very important.
“The inclusion that the Special Olympics will bring here is a great demonstration to the world of acceptance and pride in all abilities.”
Nikolad Nielsen, a member of the New York University branch campus’s student body, said that the university was thrilled to be part of both games.
“We are here because we believe that sports bring joy and purpose to the lives of all kinds of athletes, no matter their abilities,” Mr Nielsen said.
He shared a story of a young Emirati he met last year for a series of swimming classes.
“I was not very confident in the water and I had heard that Suhail was quite the swimmer, so I wondered if I could keep up with him,” Mr Nielsen said.
“Suhail is on the autism spectrum and finds it difficult to meet new people.
“But if he felt uncomfortable when we met, he did not show it. As soon as we got in the water he sprinted towards the deep end.
“In the weeks that followed, I learnt more about swimming than he did, just so I could chase behind him in the pool.
“Suhail literally tested the boundaries of what he could do as an athlete with different intellectual abilities.
“He felt a magnetic pull towards competitive sports. He moved in the water with skill, but also with joy.”
The UAE will be the first country in the Middle East to host the Special Olympics World Games after unanimously winning the vote at a meeting of the board of directors in Washington DC last year.
Most of the athletes have never been to this part of the world and will have a week to get used to the city and be introduced to the UAE and its culture, organisers said.
American Olympian Allyson Felix with Special Olympics athletes at NYU Abu Dhabi yesterday