Team UAE at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Special Olympics Middle East North Africa (MENA) Regional Games in Abu Dhabi. 1,800 athletes with special needs competed in 16 sports events at the games held in March in Abu Dhabi, Image Credit: Organiser

Abu Dhabi: Next year’s Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi will be so much more than just a one-off sporting event, according to those involved.

Seven thousand athletes from 170 nations will take part in the Games from March 14-29, but since Abu Dhabi first won the bid in 2016, the impact of hosting this event on UAE society has been vast.

‘People of Determination’ has become an official term, and the Ministry of Community Development now has a national strategy to empower the determined, with sport key among its six pillars, including health, education, mobility, protection and employment.

‘Inclusion’ is the new mantra, and although the Games can’t claim credit for all of the above, it is part of a new mass movement for People of Determination, and will accelerate social change in the UAE and beyond, when the Games enter the Mena region for the first time next year.

“It really is so much more than just a sporting event, people don’t understand the magnitude of it in terms of what’s happening. We have sporting competitions whereby athletes from around the world are coming to compete in 24 sports, but there’s also so much happening around that,” said Tala Al Ramahi, chief strategy officer of the Games in Abu Dhabi.

Health, athletic, and empowerment programmes have been launched to help People of Determination from a young age become the best they can be both as athletes, coaches and leaders. There will also be a census carried out around the Games not only to find out more about People of Determination in the UAE and what more they need to be empowered, but also to gauge perceptions towards People of Determination in order to address that.

Inclusive art, photography and cinematic screenings and galleries will be set up to profile the work of People of Determination or otherwise in an attempt to address those perceptions, while there will also be unified walks and specialist hands on fan experiences to help break down barriers between athletes and attendees through sport.

Knowledge on People of Determination and the promotion of inclusive values has also been incorporated into the national curriculum for the first time, and schools will adopt a nation during the Games, in just some of many ways to ensure the event has a real legacy. This will lead into fast-tracking change in so many other areas, added Al Ramahi.

“Dubai has an accessibility code right now for buildings and future infrastructure and there are talks to expand that to the rest of the UAE. There’s also an employment policy for People of Determination, and you will see lots of policy changes happening over the course of the next few months as we continue to work more closely with entities and ministries in this regard.”

Chaika Al Qasimi, a UAE athlete, youth leader and referee, said: “There are a lot of changes nowadays, we are seeing the biggest mass movement for People of Determination, and it’s amazing for people in this region to see how much we should be inclusive.

“For me it’s about more than competition, it’s about getting people to accept us for who we are, it’s not only sport but a feeling inside and how it impacts social change that really inspires me. It’s more than competition but the competition is what drives us.”

Asked why she thought the UAE leaders had chosen sport to help fast-track this change, Al Ramahi replied: “Sport is a way to bring people together regardless of where they are from and what they believe in.”

To find out more about the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, and to volunteer, spectate or learn more about what’s going on around the outside of the event, visit: www.abudhabi2019.org.