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UAE Embassy Celebrates America’s Special Olympics Athletes

By  Diana Oxner

On March 5, members of Congress, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates and Special Olympics athletes from Southern California, Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, D.C. and gathered at the Russell Senate Office Building for a screening of “The Road to Abu Dhabi,” a documentary about the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in the Emirati capital.

“Our mission here today,” said Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver, “is to celebrate the unique collection of people here who believe deeply in the gifts and the rights and the potential of people who have intellectual differences.”

“My only role in this movement, increasingly, is to point a finger at the real source of the energy of our movement, which you just had a chance to meet,” Shriver added as he pointed to the athletes in attendance. “We are here because we want to keep it going.”

Special Olympics
From left, Steve Manzone, Ken Richter, Garrett Ford, Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver and Krystal Johnson share a laugh at the UAE Embassy’s celebration of Special Olympics USA athletes on Capitol Hill. Photo: Carolyn Phillips, Special Olympics USA

On that note, the screening had an unfortunate element of timeliness in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced Tokyo to cancel the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympic Games. But the Special Olympics World Games — which showcase athletes with intellectual disabilities — are still scheduled to take place in February 2021, although organizers are now looking for a host venue after Sweden dropped out due to a lack of funding.

Shriver said the decision was a huge setback to the more than 2,000 athletes from 105 countries who were registered to participate in the Games at Åre and Östersund in Sweden, competing in seven winter sports categories over one week.

“At a time when the world is flooded with messages of division, many are looking for a north star to guide the way to inclusion,” Shriver said in a press release late last year. “The World Winter Games in Sweden would have been a powerful platform for millions of people to rally around — in Scandinavia, Europe and the world. Instead, we are faced with a disappointment all too familiar to our athletes and people with intellectual disabilities everywhere.”

2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi
Garrett Ford, Steve Manzone, Ken Richter and Krystal Johnson were among the 7,500 athletes who participated in the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Carolyn Phillips, Special Olympics USA

At the screening on Capitol Hill, however, UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba vowed to continue supporting the Games. “The UAE’s commitment to the Special Olympics movement didn’t end a year ago. It’s just begun. One year later, we continue to actively support the movement,” he said ahead of the screening.

In the 30-minute documentary, three Special Olympics USA athletes are profiled leading up to and during the 2019 World Games. The film showcases Garrett Ford, a powerlifter from Ohio; Ken Richter and Steve Manzone, a Unified bocce pair from Connecticut; and Krystal Johnson, a tennis player from Southern California.

For Richter, the Special Olympics was an “outlet for him to just be a person.” For Johnson, she said it was an avenue for her to use her “God-given talents”

Special Olympics
Fireworks illuminate the sky during the opening ceremony of the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. The Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities, providing year-round training and activities to 5 million participants and Unified Sports partners in 172 countries. Photo: Wikiemirati - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77765183

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, noted in the documentary that the core of the movement is to show that all people have the right to “play on every field, attend university and hold a job.”

All three athletes in the film along with several additional athletes at the event spoke about their experience at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. They were among 7,500 athletes from 190 countries who competed in sports such as bowling, swimming and judo in front of over 500,000 spectators.

When asked about how they were treated in the UAE, all of the athletes said they felt like they were treated like royalty, like family and like normal people. To Garrett Ford, “that felt awesome.”

Shriver closed by praising “the voices and experiences of these men and women, these young people, who themselves have been on the frontlines of overcoming fear and overcoming exclusion and overcoming intolerance. You saw them stand up here, try to touch us with joy and suggest a different world. And we’re here to celebrate a different worldview.”

Diana Oxner is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat. 



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