The UAE finesses its host country status, with the Olympics in clear sight

As Abu Dhabi gears up to host the Special Olympic Games, Georgina Lavers reports that the UAE is proving its focus and capability as a conduit for major sports events 

Matthew Williams watched as a friendly game broke out inside the IPIC Arena, during a press conference to celebrate Abu Dhabi’s being chosen as host of the 2019 Special Olympic Games.

Acting as council to the athletes, as well as a current competitor – he played to a packed Los Anglese audience as part of the Canadian basketball team, and will also compete in short track speed skating in Austria this year ­– Williams is well-versed in all things Special Olympics.

“There are a couple of things that make these Games unique,” he comments. “The guys out there playing football? That most probably won’t be the only sport they play in the Special Olympics.

“You get athletes who compete in tennis and athletics in the summer, and then pick up skating and skiing in the winter. There’s so much freedom and flexibility in these Games – you’re not committed to one sport.”

First founded in Washington 1968, the Special Olympics were conceived to provide year-round athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-style sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them opportunities to develop physical fitness and demonstrate courage, among other benefits.

The synergy between the Games’ ethos and that of the UAE was opportune, said Her Excellency Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of State for Federal National Council Affairs.

“[The UAE] welcomes people from anyone from anywhere in the world, who bring their rich culture and help us to develop our society. The Olympics are all about inclusion and openness towards everyone – without exception.”  

Dr Timothy Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, has served more than 5.5 million special Olympic athletes in over 170 countries. He has also testified before US Congress to respect the dignity and possibilities of people with intellectual disabilities.

A friendly match at the IPIC Arena

“You will see athletes run great distances and you will see them lift beanbags. You will see them jump over hurdles and you will see them struggle to walk,” he said.

“There is great fear of difference… we come to celebrate what defeats this with attitudes of inclusion and of tolerance. In the end, this is our message: when you come to these Games, you will participate – not just watch.”

The Games, which will take place from 14-21 March 2019 (with athletes staying at host family homes across the UAE), are just one facet of an increasing willingness and capability of the UAE to host major sporting events.

As a country with a culturally diverse population, efforts have been made to appeal to a wide range of sporting interests. Just a few of the annual events include the Dubai World Cup, Dubai World Superseries Finals, the F1 Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, Dubai Rugby Sevens, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, and the DP World Tour Championship.

As well as these, the country is also embracing less traditional sports. Dubai has recently signed on as host of the World Future Sports Games, after its Drone Grand Prix, which took place last year. In December this year, an extension of this event will see technology embraced through a wider variety of disciplines, with drone races as well as robotic swimming, running, wrestling and car racing.

With events that embrace this kind of technology, as well as efforts to promote more niche sports such as padel, the UAE is proving that it will not limit its capacity to a few key disciplines. This diversity is finding favour among residents, who are looking for their country to become the overall host of the Olympic Games.

Research from YouGov immediately following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games revealed that nine out of 10 UAE residents are keen to host the Games in their country, with all age groups and nationalities equally highly in favour.

YouGov’s MENA Managing Director, Kailash Nagdev, said that a feasibility study conducted for the 2020 Olympics concluded that over 70 per cent of the infrastructure required for the Games is ready or planned in the country, irrespective of an Olympic bid.

“With Dubai also hosting the World Expo in 2020, the country’s ability to host large-scale events will be second to none. That, together with a longer term plan for grass roots sports development, could mean a UAE Olympic bid will become a reality.”