For the second time, Austria is hosting the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games. Graz, Schladming, Ramsau and Styria will stage the Games from 18 to 25 March. In 1993, Austria hosted the first Special Olympics World Winter Games held outside the US.
A lot has changed since and a worldwide audience will get the chance to see many moments from the Games. ESPN will be broadcasting stories and competitions live during the Games.
Nearly 2,700 athletes and 1,000 coaches representing 107 nations will be welcomed at the opening ceremony at the Planai Stadium in Schladming, a regular stop on the World Cup circuit and site of the 2013 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships.
The organisers say the renowned singer Helene Fischer is to perform at both the opening ceremony in Schladming on 18 March and at the closing ceremony in Graz on 24 March. Which songs the 32-year-old Fischer will sing is a well-kept secret, but in any case, the German shows a big heart for Special Olympics and its motto ‘Heartbeat for the world.’
“We are, of course, very happy that Helene Fischer will perform. This is a great appreciation for our athletes, but also for the entire event. A singer like Helene Fischer does not have to be explained to us anywhere in Europe,” said Markus Pichler, the CEO of the Games.
The fact that Fischer will also be singing at the closing ceremony at Liebenau Stadium in Graz is the perfect ending for the big event in Austria. In Graz the athletes, coaches, family members, volunteers and fans can also look forward to the performance of Andreas Gabalier, who will sing in “his” stadium in his hometown for the first time.
Grace VanderWaal, winner of America’s Got Talent, will also attend the closing in the Styrian capital.
The participants at the Games will get the opportunity in the 10-day competition to ski, skate, snowboard, snowshoe, shoot balls and pucks and enjoy the winter weather in Austria. For many of the athletes, attending a World Games is the dream of a lifetime. The World Games will feature nine Olympic-style sports: floor ball, floor hockey, stick shooting, figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
The Games will showcase the unlimited potential of people with intellectual disabilities -- the largest disability population in the world.
Altogether 44 athletes will represent the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at the Games and will be taking part in two sports: snowshoeing and floor hockey.
Special Olympics (SO) Egypt athletes will participate in floor hockey with 16 players and four players in snowshoeing.
According to Bassem Al-Tohami, SO Egypt’s national director and head of the Egyptian delegation to Austria, said “our athletes have been training for a long time for the Winter Games. They trained on the sand near the Pyramids to get used to snowshoeing because there is no snow in Egypt. Sand has the same texture and will help them in achieving good results at the Games.”
President and regional managing director of the MENA region Ayman Abdel-Wahab said that the region continues to dazzle Special Olympics International officials with their performances at the Winter Games despite the fact that the region rarely sees snow and winter sports are not that popular. “This is not the first appearance of the region in the Games. Actually, we have participated in several editions and achieved impressive results,” Abdel-Wahab said. He added that the region’s participation at the Winter Games was not restricted to sports but involved other programmes including Healthy Athletes, Families and Global Messengers.
Abdel-Wahab said a high-profile delegation from the UAE will be attending since the Emirates will be representing the MENA region as hosts of the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games. “Abu Dhabi was recently awarded the host nation of the 2019 edition, thus bringing it for the first time to the MENA region. This is the perfect chance for the next organisers to be present in Austria and witness the organisational process. There will be three different delegates throughout the 10 days and each will be responsible to follow up on certain areas. The most important will be the last delegation which will comprise top officials of the state and royalty members to participate in the hand-out of the flag for the next Games by the SOI officials, which will take place at the closing ceremony,” Abdel-Wahab explained, adding that Egypt will also take part in the opening ceremony by two top officials of state, including Khaled Abdel-Aziz, minister of youth and sports and Ghada Wali, minister of social solidarity.
Earlier this month, the ‘Flame of Hope’ for the Games in Austria was lit during a formal ceremony in Athens. In keeping with tradition, the ceremony took place along the lines of the original torch lighting of the Olympics at the Zappeion Palace in Athens, Greece, where the flame was lit by the sun’s rays and carried out by the high priestess and the priestesses.
The Flame of Hope was then transported to Austria where the Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) final leg was formally launched on 9 March, preceding the Winter Games. The lighting ceremony began a journey of the Flame of Hope across towns and cities throughout Austria concluding with the flame being delivered to the opening ceremony.
Over 300 dignitaries and 120 Special Olympics athletes were present at the ceremony including Prokopios Pavlopoulos, president of the Hellenic Republic, Dionyssios Kodellas, president of Special Olympics Hellas, Jurgen Winter, president of the Special Olympics World Winter Games Austria 2017 Organising Committee, Markus Pichler, CEO of the committee, Giorgios Vassiliadis, deputy minister for sports for Greece, David Evangelista, president and managing director of Special Olympics Europe Eurasia, law enforcement torch run for Special Olympics final leg team members and team Special Olympics Hellas.
The ceremony featured remarks by Winter, Vassiliadis and Evangelista and a performance of the Special Olympics anthem by composer Stefanos Korkolis.
“The torch lighting is the kick-off for us for the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games. In a few weeks, athletes from 107 nations will come to Austria and attend these Games,” said Winter. “We will cordially welcome all athletes, coaches, families and guests and hope they enjoy their time in Austria.”
After the Flame of Hope was lit, Winter handed the torch to final leg team member and Special Olympics Austria athlete Johannes Grander and Special Olympics Hellas athlete Nikos Toulikas. One hundred and twenty torch runners including members of law enforcement, Special Olympics athletes and students from the local public schools of Korydallos, Athens, Psychio College High School, Campion, Doukas, Nea Genia Ziridi, and Sychroni Paideia then carried the Flame of Hope through the streets of Athens to the residence of Austrian Ambassador Andrea Ikic-Behm where a ceremony was held. Following the events, the torch was entrusted to the Presidential Guard for safekeeping until it begins its journey to Austria.
The Flame of Hope took its trans-continental journey via Aegean Airlines, which transported the torch to Zurich, arriving on 8 March in time for the start of the final leg, which kicked-off on 9 March from Bregenz, Austria.
The final leg team embarked on two different routes, running the flame through 45 cities, towns and communities across Austria at various events, honouring the spirit of the Special Olympics global movement and delivering a message of hope to communities where people with intellectual disabilities continue to fight for acceptance and inclusion.