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Abu Dhabi Special Olympics wraps, but fight for inclusion continues

Inspire middle east

Lit in Athens and brought to Abu Dhabi, the arrival of the Flame of Hope marked the start of the Special Olympic World Games in the United Arab Emirates.

For the first time, the global sports event dedicated to people with intellectual disabilities was held in the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi Special Olympic World Games opening ceremony

7,500 athletes representing 195 countries took part in 24 sports including heavy powerlifting, rhythmic gymnastics, and competitive swimming.

The event, which takes place every two years, since its founding 50 years ago, attracted half a million spectators from across the world.

UAE tennis athlete, Clara Lehmkuhl who has Downs Syndrome, expressed her delight in competing against people from different countries.

UAE tennis athlete, Clara Lehmkuhl

“It’s really a dream come true for me to take part and to play tennis and it’s a good way for me to be having friends around the world and to see them perform,” said Lehmkuhl.


Over 20,000 volunteers, including 1,500 Emiratis worked to ensure the seven-day competition ran smoothly.

Unlike other mainstream Olympic games, where the financial investments can run into the billions of dollars, Abu Dhabi decided to use its budget towards education and healthcare campaigns instead of infrastructure improvements.

Gymnastics event at the Abu Dhabi Special Olmypics

In an attempt to raise awareness and public understanding of people with disabilities, playing into its National Vision 2021 strategy, of making the UAE among the best countries in the world by the Golden Jubilee of the Union.

“I think the legacy here will be human legacy, it will be a legacy about schools being more integrated, people with determination being employed, having access to healthcare, access to opportunities and everybody, all people with the same access to the same services,” said Peter Wheeler, CEO of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi.

Peter Wheeler, CEO of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi


Around 200 million people worldwide have a learning disability, according to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Celebrations at the Special Olympics World Games

An on-going study by the Special Olympics stated that nearly a third of people from eight Middle East countries believe those with intellectual disabilities are not capable of being included in various aspects of society.

“People are sympathetic to people with intellectual disabilities but still doubt that they can be still included in schools, in our healthcare sector, there is still hesitation to understand that people with intellectual disabilities can be proactive members of our society,” said Tala Al Ramahi, CSO of the Special Olympic World Games, Abu Dhabi.

Tala Al Ramahi, CSO of the Special Olympic World Games, Abu Dhabi


Organisers are hopeful, that the World Games will bring empowerment to those with intellectual disabilities and challenge mind-sets.

“I think what Special Olympics is doing is creating a dialogue about acceptance, about celebrating differences, appreciating the differences and our athletes are models of that,” said Wheeler.

The Special Olympics five-year campaign called ‘the revolution is inclusion’ launched this year to mark half a century of the games and break down barriers on and off the field.

More from Inspire Middle East: How are mothers in Jordan countering stigma towards children with disabilities?


Team GB coach Niamh posted this shot of her team mates and described the Special Olympics as “an experience of a lifetime”.

View this post on Instagram Action packed day today with Team Athletics Kit ✔️ Training✔️ PR✔️ Photos✔️ Safeguarding✔️ Banter ✔️ Song Writing ✔️ Team Awesome✔️ WE ARE TEAM ATHLETICS #TEAMSOGB #AbuDhabi2019 #athletics #WorldGames2019 #teambuilding #seeingisbelieving

A post shared by Niamh (@therealniamh) on Jan 19, 2019 at 3:33pm PST

Omani bowler Saleem posted this picture of his training sessions ahead of the Olympics, saying he dreams to join the national team.

View this post on Instagram بسم الله ماشاء الله لا قوة إلا بالله العلي العظيم #ساندونا #الأولمبياد_الخاص_العماني #specialolympics2019 #specialolympics #specialolympicsad #halanoon #هلا_نون

A post shared by سليم (@saleem_alrahbi) on Jan 31, 2019 at 12:51am PST

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