Proud medal winners at the Summer Special Olympic Games in Athens last year. The Games are helping to change lives. Image Credit: Supplied picture

As the athletes warm up for their training the only topic of conversation is the Olympics. They have been preparing for hours, often seven days a week, pushing their skills and their bodies to the limit. They all have the same target in sight - standing victorious on the podium, and bringing home a gold medal to make their families and country proud.

But they're not heading to London in July. The 22-member UAE contingent is training to compete at the Special Olympics World Winter Games, an event for athletes with intellectual disabilities, being held in PyeongChang, South Korea, in January 2013. They'll be taking part in snowshoeing - where participants wear specially designed gear on their feet that allows them to walk on snow - short track speed skating and floor hockey, among others.

The fact that the next Games is less than a year away is evident at the Al Thiqa Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah. The sense of urgency is palpable with the athletes and coaches giving their all, preparing for their events.

On an outdoor court, Nada Abdulla Al Mazroui is being put through her paces. She's a gold medallist in two disciplines, bowling and bocce, a game that's similar to boules.

The warm-up exercises challenge 25-year-old Nada, who has Down's Syndrome, but she's soon smiling, eager to start the training session. She runs over to her brother Hassan Abdullah Al Mazroui, 28, to tell him that she'd prefer to spend time in the club and practise than go on a planned family vacation later this month.

"I want to improve my game,'' she says and Hassan smiles. He often watches her three-hour-a-day sessions, and proudly lists the 30-plus medals she's won in international as well as local championships. More important than the medals though is the marked difference playing - and excelling at - sports has had on his sister. "She has come out of her shell, the fact she is laughing and playing... that is the true reward we have received," he says.

Sport opened the doors to opportunity

Six years ago, Nada was reluctant to interact socially. She was quiet, reserved and had a propensity to put on weight, so her teachers at a special needs school and her parents encouraged her to take up sport.

Nada soon began to look forward to spending more time at school participating in sport. She opened up even more at home, expressing an interest in cooking, browsing newspapers even though she can't read, and watching television.

It didn't take long for the school coach to notice that Nada was good at most sports and suggested she try out for the Special Olympics. She began training in earnest in March 2006 and the next year won the gold medal in the individual category and silver in the team category in bocce at the Special Olympics' Summer World Games in Shanghai; then gold and silver in the Regional Games in Abu Dhabi, and bronzes in the Games in Syria in 2010.

Nada is just one of the 3,275 athletes registered with the Special Olympics UAE. Mohammad and his brother Abdullah Al Tajer are two others from the UAE who've also excelled at the Special Olympics regional games.

While Abdullah, 20, is a champion swimmer, his brother, Mohammad, 15, is an equestrian champ. Both boys were born with intellectual disabilities.

"Abdullah learnt to swim at the pool at home,'' says his mother Salha. "He was so good that I wanted to enrol him in a good club and get him professional coaching. But no regular club would admit him because of his condition." But she didn't give up; after much searching she eventually discovered the Al Thiqa Club, where she enrolled him at the age of 11.

Abdullah was coached by Jamal Abdul Kader Nasser, the UAE national team's swimming coach and the club's resident coach. Abdullah did so well that when the Special Olympics UAE committee was looking to register local athletes, he was one of the first choices.

However, initially Salha was hesitant to send her son for a national or international event. "Though he was 12 at the time, his mental age was only around seven," she says. But the committee members managed to convince her it would be good for Abdullah to participate internationally. "In the end I wanted him to prove himself so I let him go," she says.

Abdullah won two gold medals at those Games, held in Tunisia. He followed up with two golds and a silver at the fifth Special Olympics MENA Games in Dubai in 2006 and two gold at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China in 2007.

Last year at the World Championships in Athens, Greece, he again won gold.

A mother's faith in her sons

If Abdullah has been making waves in the pool, his only sibling, Mohammad, is busy on the field winning equestrian events.

Mohammad has displayed a love for horses since the age of three, says his mother. "Every time he saw a picture of a horse, he'd get excited.'' Convinced he'd do well in horse riding, Salha enrolled him at the riding club in Nad Al Sheba. So impressed was the coach by his skills that he included him in the UAE contingent for the World Championships in China in 2007, even though he was only ten years old.

"I was thrilled!" says Salha. "The first day, Abdulla won a gold medal, and followed it up with another on the second day," she says. "Mohammad won a silver medal, and at ten was the youngest athlete there!"

The boys and their family were thrilled - not just because they won but because it had such a positive impact on their lives. "It's increased their confidence immensely," says Salha. "Today they don't feel they are different from any of us; they feel they're a part of society. The fact they are participating with hundreds of others, winning medals, receiving applause from crowds... is helping them immensely to become confident, positive individuals."

Nada's brother Hassan, who volunteers at the Special Olympic Games, agrees. "Nada is so much more outgoing and full of enthusiasm for life now," he says. "Her participation in the Games has certainly brought a big change in our family. All of us are more positive now and we look forward to taking her to all such events."

Changing lives from an early age

Changing the lives of intellectually challenged children and youth for the better is what the Special Olympics strives for. "And we have been able to achieve this in the countries it is operating in,'' says Ayman Aly A. Wahab, president and managing director, Special Olympics, Middle East/North Africa. Participants have to be over the age of eight and identified by a professional as having intellectual disabilities.

Special Olympics recently launched the Young Athletes Program, an innovative play programme for children with intellectual disabilities between the ages of two and seven. It offers developmentally appropriate play activities designed to encourage physical, cognitive and social development while also introducing them to the world of sport.

"In 2001, there were just 20,000 athletes registered with us in the region, and 15,000 of them were from Cairo,'' says Ayman. "By 2010, it increased to 153,000. The real progress we see here is that now, while only 25,000 of them are from Egypt, the rest are from the 21 Arab countries, and Iran, that form the Mena division. Now, that is real awareness."

Ayman feels it is now up to the business community to wake up to their social responsibility. "We cannot always expect the governments to keep pumping funds in. Companies too should pitch in. Procter and Gamble, for one, has been sponsoring Special Olympics since 2005. Other regional and local companies too can join hands in supporting us."

The funds would help in getting specially trained coaches for the intellectually disabled athletes, and also for educating families of such athletes. "Unless they are properly educated, the families can destroy at home what is painstakingly instilled in the athletes on the field," says Ayman. "We also need volunteers who can give their time for the Special Olympics. We need at least five volunteers to attend to one athlete."

One major area where the Special Olympics has made a major difference in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities is health. A screening programme organised by the team revealed a variety of health issues among the athletes that had not been diagnosed simply because they didn't know how to communicate their problems. "Even a common condition like a toothache went undetected because the special needs person was unable to communicate the feeling of pain," Ayman says. "The medical tests we conducted have helped the athletes by solving problems related to vision, hearing and ear, nose and throat issues.''

Medals aren't the be-all and end-all

Ayman recalls an incident during the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games in North Carolina, US. "An athlete from Zimbabwe who was competing in the 200-metre race kept straying off the track and the race had to be re-started thrice," he explains. "Suspecting a problem, we sent him to be tested by a doctor who found that the boy was having very poor vision. He didn't know he had a problem, believing everybody was seeing things the way he was. All he needed was proper eye glasses.

"His coach told me later that when he went back after the Games, he met his parents at the airport and was overjoyed as he was seeing them clearly for the first time!

"That's the kind of change we seek to make. I am not really concerned about the number of medals they win. I am interested in the changes in their lives we can make. What we do is use sport as a tool to help make the world a better place for these special children."

Like in the life of Nada. She's now confident enough to start looking for a job. "Once she lands a good job, that will be the most precious medal for us," says Hassan proudly.

The Special Olympics World Games are held every two years.

Special Olympics UAE in numbers:

  • Established in 1990.
  • 3,275 registered athletes.
  • 55 coaches.
  • 120 volunteers.
  • In the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece, the UAE team participated with 98 athletes and returned with 65 medals; 23 Gold , 24 Silver and 18 Bronze (based on ‘medals by teams' count, not by athletes)