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Playing on land of old
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 09 - 2010

Ancient Damascus hosts the MENA Special Olympics. Abeer Anwar reports
Damascus is all decked up and ready to welcome the over 2,000 athletes representing the Middle East and North Africa region in the 7th edition of the Special Olympics Regional Games which will be inaugurated tomorrow under the auspices of Syria's First Lady and honorary chairwoman of SO Syria, Asmaa Al-Assad.
Tishreen Stadium, one of the oldest in the Syrian capital, will play host to the opening ceremony which will be attended by a number of high-ranking officials from throughout the MENA region headed by Timothy Shriver, Special Olympics CEO who will attend the opening ceremony of the Games, then fly quickly to other parts of the world which are holding their regional games simultaneously.
Shriver said previously that the SOMENA region was "on the right path, a matter that wouldn't have been achieved except through the endless support received by the region and its people who have strong faith in the legitimate right of individuals with intellectual disabilities in expressing themselves within a movement that is not only sports oriented but social and health oriented as well."
On the Syrian initiative, he described it as living proof of the Syrian officials' eagerness to provide ultimate support to individuals with intellectual disabilities and help accommodate them fully within the community. The opening ceremony will depict a true story, to be presented via a number of folklore dances, of an intellectually disabled athlete and his father who works as a physician, and who exerted his utmost effort to make his son a champion by joining the SO movement.
"The Games will mark the launch of the third five- year development plan which aims at increasing the number of athletes to 250,000," SOMENA managing director Ayman Abdel-Wahab said, describing the regions programmes as "becoming factual advance in terms of the ever growing concern given to the activities of individuals with intellectual disabilities in the region."
Going over the history of the SO MENA Regional Games since its inception, Abdel-Wahab reviewed the background of the first regional Games held in Egypt under the patronage of Suzanne Mubarak, up to the 6th Games held in Abu Dhabi, highlighting the ever increasing number of participants. Egypt won 70 medals in Abu Dhabi in 2008 -- 27 gold, 25 silver and 18 bronze.
This year 149 Egyptian athletes are participating.
Faisal Al-Basri, chairman of SO Syria, expressed delight over Syrias hosting of the Games, describing the event as "a marvelous chance to show the whole world how fantastic it is to see intellectually disabled people who were locked in their homes years ago, becoming right now a means of pride and honour to their families and themselves through competing in Special Olympics, sharing experiences and joy with their friends and teammates from all over the world."
Their families also have the chance to meet in conferences to share experiences.Abdel-Wahab said SOMENA's 23 Arab countries, in addition to Iran, are partaking in the Games with 2,005 individuals participating in the Games 15 sports alongside 5,000 volunteers, 2,500 families and 500 officials. More than 50,000 spectators are expected to be in the stadium, in what could be described as the biggest draw since the launch of its first version in Cairo 1999.The first Games held in Cairo had just 265 athletes.
The sports to be competed in Syria during the Games are track and field, swimming, cycling, table tennis, bocce, bowling, equestrian, handball, unified sport futsal, badminton, roller skating, weightlifting, unified sports basketball for females, floor hockey and tennis.
The events will be held in Tishreen, Al-Fayhaa and the Martyr Bassel Equestrian Club.Al-Basri said Syria was mobilising all sports facilities it owns to ensure the success of the Games which he described as the largest for individuals with intellectual disabilities in the region.Along with the huge number of participants, Abdel-Wahab listed other parallel events that will take place alongside of the Games, including regional conferences Families, Youth and Schools, Athlete Leadership, Health Screening and Young Athletes.He affirmed that Syrias hosting of the Games was a message to the world "reflecting the support and concern directed towards individuals with intellectual disabilities on the official as well as individual level," a message he described as reflecting civilisation and humanity from Damascus, the oldest inhabited city in world history, which makes Syria 2010 the largest SO gathering in the region to date.
Decorated with the famous Damascus sword and Olympic torch, the Games' official mascot made its first appearance during a global press conference that was held in DamascusAbdel-Wahab stressed that SO had placed the Damascus Games on its global agenda for 2010 amongst the European Games in Poland, Latin American Games in Puerto Rico, North American Games in Nebraska and the China Regional Games. Abdel-Wahab said everybody should be proud of SOMENA, being the only region among the world's seven regions to have its regional games organised on a biannual basis. Syrian Minister of Social Affairs Diyala Aref emphasised the event's importance for Syria "as an example to be followed in terms of supporting and encouraging individuals with intellectual disabilities and accommodating them into the community."
The opening ceremony is to be held on Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, an annual celebration of her life and a global call for people to commit actions of inclusion, acceptance and unity for and with people with intellectual disabilities. EKS Day has been created to inspire new fans to experience her legacy and embrace the movement she founded in her backyard. What started as an inclusive sports camp in the early 1960s has blossomed into a worldwide movement transforming lives in over 170 countries.
EKS Day, now an annual event held on the fourth Saturday of September, has programme leaders launching Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day in each of the seven SO regions in an effort to celebrate and share her legacy while inspiring new supporters to act.
Shrivers actions helped open people's minds to the gifts and talents of individuals with intellectual disabilities. She believed in their possibilities, which fuels a desire in all of us to make a difference.
Shriver demonstrated an unrelenting indomitable spirit, proving that one person could make a difference and change the world. Her lasting legacy was her continued commitment to improve the lives of the 200 million people worldwide living with intellectual disabilities and experiencing social disrespect and diminished opportunities.


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