Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A world of welcome

The Special Olympics World Winter Games concludes with the Egyptians winning one gold medal. Inas Mazhar reports from Austria where the athletes felt right at home

Egypt’s Special Olympics athletes competing in floor hockey and snowshoeing

After six days of tough, exciting and entertaining competition, tears of joy and disappointment, the Special Olympics World Winter Games comes to an end Saturday March 25 in the Austrian city of Graz with yet another spectacular closing ceremony, as dazzling as the opening ceremony which took place in the city of Schladming on 14 March.

Egypt’s gold medal was won by Mohammed Abdo in the snowshoeing 100 metre race which took place in the city of Schladming.

The Egyptian delegation is taking part in only two sports: floor hockey and snowshoeing. Egypt had a rough start in the floor hockey, losing their opening game to Algeria 3-1 on Monday. On Tuesday, the team was scheduled to meet the UAE and Cyprus in the same event.

As the Flame of Hope was lit in the Planai Stadium in Schladming, more than 2,600 athletes from 105 nations took the Special Olympics oath promising, “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” The dramatic culmination marked the opening of the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria, the largest sporting event in the world in 2017. The star-studded ceremony was broadcast live to 190 countries.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Just after the opening ceremony, the heartbeat for the world went on pounding stronger and louder than ever before. This was already apparent at the opening when 15,000 people came to Schladming to watch the open-air spectacle live at Planai Stadium and to get caught up in the euphoria, the joy of life and the warmth of the over 2,600 participating athletes. The whole country caught the Special Olympics fever. The World Winter Games took a place in the hearts of the people. On Sunday, day one of competition, all the venues were filled with thousands of spectators. One of the fans was Austria’s Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen.

Enthusiasm also prevailed in the first award ceremonies. At the Schladminger Wetzlarplatz the winners and following places were honoured and got great applause. Markus Pichler, CEO of the World Games 2017, said: “The mood is just awesome. And this appreciation is really one of the most beautiful gifts for our athletes.

“Over 20 years ago the Special Olympics movement came to Austria and for the first time the Games globalised our movement. And when we came here that time, there was the heartbeat of Special Olympics Austria and Styria and it was Hermann Kröll (the driving force behind expanding the Special Olympics World Games and making them truly international) and we still hold Hermann Kröll as the heartbeat tonight. He remains the force that unites us. May I ask you in just a few minutes to put your hand on your hearts and feel your own heartbeats and if you would hold Hermann Kröll in your heart, too. And hold all those who could not be with us tonight in your hearts. Hold all those doctors who are fighting for health justice, hold them in your heart. Hold all those children who want to go to daycare centres and learn to play, hold all of them in your hearts. Hold all those mothers who still want a chance to be proud of their children, hold them in your hearts. Hold all of those who have been terrorised by indifference and war and violence and don’t know that the world really cares about them. Hold them all in your hearts. You athletes need to be able to remind them all that we can and we will create a world of welcome for all of them. And if we hold them in our hearts, there is indeed nothing that can stop us. It will not be easy. There will be opposition. There will be those who say exclude. There will be those who say it’s too expensive. There will be those who say our athletes don’t deserve a chance.

“Athletes, you know better. You got to have a good offense. You got to train hard with grit and perseverance. You’ve got to be determined in the face of every enemy. But if you are and if you carry yourself with grit, determination, perseverance, and empathy, too, you will win. You will win your gold medals here and all over the world.

“Let us set our hearts then on the victory that matters most, when someone says what’s wrong, we say you’ve got the question wrong. We’re strong, and we’re ready to defeat every enemy. And if you need to be reminded there’s a world with no barriers, look to the mountains behind us, they don’t know nationalities. They don’t know language. They don’t know religion or culture. They don’t know clothing or any other cultural difference. They just rise up and that’s us, too.

Athletes, you give everything that you’ve got, no holds barred. Leave nothing behind. Amaze your coaches like you’ve never done and you will win gold,” ended Pichler.   

Highlights of the opening ceremony included the Parade of Athletes, a unified choir, the final leg of the Law Enforcement Torch Run staged by a team of 105 skiers, and remarks by Austrian President Van der Bellen, and Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver.

“It is my hope that after the Special Olympics World Winter Games, the spotlight does not dim, but continues to shine for those with intellectual disabilities, with you serving as a role model in your home countries,” said Van der Bellen.

Following the Parade of Athletes, a tribute video for Kröll, the late president of Special Olympics Austria, highlighted his long-term commitment to Special Olympics and globalisation of the movement. Kröll was instrumental in bringing the Special Olympics World Winter Games to Austria twice and was a constant champion to improving the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Egypt’s Special Olympics athletes competing at their Winter Games

Shriver eulogised Kröll. “There was the heartbeat of Special Olympics Austria and Styria and it was Hermann Kröll and we still hold Hermann Kröll as the heartbeat tonight. Every Special Olympics athlete has a story to tell, of grit, determination and overcoming obstacles. There will be those who say exclude. There will be those who say our athletes don’t deserve a chance. Athletes, you know better.”

The ceremony concluded with fireworks and performances by European megastar Helene Fischer and two-time Grammy winner Jason Mraz accompanied by America’s Got Talent winner Grace VanderWaal performing “I’m yours” and “I won’t give up”.

Two days into the event, Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to Shriver who said that this year’s Winter Games were the biggest ever. “I think one of the beautiful things about Special Olympics is that we find ways to bring together people from different regions. We have all these snowshoers from the Middle East countries who are here now and who trained on sand so we don’t see this as a barrier but as an opportunity. I was talking to some of the athletes who have never seen snow before and they are competing and they are proving that they have trained hard, so I think that the size of these Games is an indication of the hunger that is out there in the world. We can have 5,000 athletes in the Games, we can have tens of thousands, the demand of the people wanting to come together, wanting to cross barriers, wanting  to create a global inclusive environment all over the world, and this shows that hunger is so big that I think that these Games are probably more than any other Games.”

Shriver said that he was satisfied with the work done in the world’s seven zones for the sake of the Special Olympics programmes.

“I think if you look around the world you’ll see different places in the world doing different things. We see for instance in some of the Middle Eastern countries very strong community-based programmes showing special interest in the Family Support Programme in many of these countries. In Europe, you’ll find people are more interested in the Unified Sports Programme as in Italy, Australia, the UK, Holland and the Czech Republic. There, it is growing very rapidly in unified sports. In Africa, we have seen attention given to the health programmes, the Healthy Athletes Programme and screening and how they are keen in health training for professionals. And in Asia, you see all of those things. So, I think that we are doing well, but not great. I think we still have a long way to go and most people still don’t know us. Most people confuse us with the Paralympics. Most people still don’t believe that a child with intellectual disabilities can learn, can grow and can have a job. So, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding in the world and we have a long way to go in order to change that,” Shriver added.

He said he appreciates the efforts and progress accomplished in the Middle East and North Africa region under the leadership of MENA’s president and regional managing director Ayman Abdel-Wahab.

“We are bringing the Special Olympics World Games to the Middle East. The Summer Games will be the first to be held in the region, in Abu Dhabi in 2019. The heroism in the Middle East places like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Iran is unbelievable. I see the emails that come in describing a competition that is being held in a small village outside of Damascus and I look at the television and I say it is not possible. It can’t be happening. So, I think you know the Middle East. We see the region as a region of conflict but when I see the region, I see it as a region of progress and I don’t think that story gets told outside of the news.  

“Abu Dhabi was selected because they were the best. Just so happens that the best is in the middle of the Gulf, in the Middle East in the middle of this zone that is perceived to be chaos or violence or tension or these kinds of things but it is not. But, I am not worried at all. I mean, look at our athletes, they overcome a lot of danger walking out of their front doors than most people on earth experience in their lifetimes. Danger of bullying, danger of abduction, danger of violence, danger of humiliation, danger of being beaten up.

“So, me getting worried? Not a bit. I’m not worried at all, zero.”

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