Abu Dhabi: Special Olympics Founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver once said: “Special Olympics is one ‘issue’ any local or national government can and will support once they have the unique experience of hosting a World Games and learning more about these athletes. I say this emphatically because it has happened after every World Games in our history. It always happens.”
And as the 7,500 athletes with determination from 200 countries stepped in for the opening ceremony, ahead of the global extravaganza, at the packed Zayed Sports City Stadium, they had the same hope and belief that the power of the World Games would change their lives and the mindset of people not only in UAE but around the world.
Since late afternoon, all roads in the capital were leading in one direction, to the Zayed Sport City Stadium, that wore a festive look. Celebrating 50 years of the Special Olympics Movement, the opening ceremony had to be a spectacle. Al Fursan aerobatic team lit the skies above the arena by smoking the colour of the UAE flag.
And as the sun fast faded in the backdrop and floodlights took centrestage, 14 singers and dancers from 14 countries of global dance group entertained the crowd. But it was DJ Bliss who set the tone for an electrifying evening with Ed Sheeran’s hit number Shape of You and spectators of all ages were off their seats shaking a leg or two to the brilliant musical fusion.
The unified choir then followed suit singing in harmony as the athletes with determination walked into the arena amidst deafening roar. Leading the way was the Team with Determination from Hellas (Greece), where the ‘Flame of Hope’ was lit two months ago.
India, the second largest contingent comprising of 370 members, including 284 athletes had a fair share of supporters in the stands to egg them on. United States, the first country to host the Special Olympics in 1968, here with a team of 314 members, also got a grand welcome.
But, undoubtedly the UAE squad of 450, including 302 athletes, got the loudest cheer as they made their way into the grand stand last as the host nation. Sound of UAE…UAE…UAE reverberated all around as the entire squad went straight towards the VVIP stand where His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
The UAE national anthem, followed by the flag hoisting, would have given goosebumps for many as the entire crowd sang in chorus to show how unified they are for the Special Games.
The Chairman of the Special Olympics Timothy Shivers started his speech saying, “His Highness Mohammad Bin Zayed, in a world full of tension and division, you are a ripple of compassion, a wave of compassion in the entire world of Special Olympics.
“For 200 million people with differences, 200 nations assembled here; we send you our thanks for not only creating this moment of tolerance but also to create a year of tolerance and for sending a message to the entire World that now is the time for tolerance.”
On this special occasion, Shivers also remembered his mother Eunice, the pioneer of this movement. “I think my mother is here. I think she dreamed to see you shining, rising being your best self in front of the world. And she could only be proud together with all your ancestors. I think they are telling you. You have won the most important race already,” added Shivers, as a fitting tribute to Eunice who made this day possible. It has been 10 years since her demise but her vision still lives on.
Come seven days the ‘Flame of Hope’ will burn bright in the cauldron and keep reminding one and all that a lot more needs to be done to keep the smiles going for these Special talents. But for now let’s enjoy their immense grit, smile and determination through their play. Let the Games begin!
The grand opening ceremony was graced by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa of Bahrain; Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Macky Sall of Senegal, as well as Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta. Their Highnesses the Supreme Council Members and Rulers of the Emirates; Shaikh Humaid Bin Rashid Al Nuaimi of Ajman, Shaikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi of Fujairah, Shaikh Saud Bin Rashid Al Mu’alla of Umm Al Qaiwain, and Shaikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi of Ras Al Khaimah.