Persons with disability in Egypt were in for a special treat on Friday 5 December. Not only did this day witness the opening of the 8th Special Olympic MENA Regional Games in Cairo, but the games were opened by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in person.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi, Minister of Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II were also in attendance, as well as various high-level representatives from the other participating nations. “It is a great honour for Egypt to host such an event,” Abdel-Aziz said.
There’s a story behind the President’s opening of the games. A few days earlier, a young woman with disability made a phone call to a TV talk show the President was speaking on, and said she wished President Sisi would attend the games. The President took the call to heart and, right on time, there he was among the persons with disability opening the games.
According to Sherifa Massoud, Managing Editor of Watani Braille, an activist in the disability domain and herself visually impaired, the President’s move warmed the hearts of persons with disability. “The entire event was magnificent,” Ms Massoud says. “And because of the President being there, it gained considerable visibility. He appeared happy, relaxed and sincere as he interacted with the athletes. It made us all so happy.
“This was almost the first time in Egypt a top executive takes the initiative of warmly recognising persons with disability. I’m sure it will give our cause a huge boost; it should make the public aware of the fact that persons with disability exist, are entitled to rights, are capable of performing citizenship duties and of positively contributing to the community.
“The President’s opening of the games,” she says, “will bring to the fore a cause that has long been swept under the rug.”
The Special Olympic MENA Regional Games were held with the participation of 666 athletes from 15 MENA countries—Egypt, Maghreb, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Iran—together with 247 coaches and physiotherapists. The athletes competed in 16 sports: swimming, cycling, tennis, table tennis, boccia, bowling, equestrian, volleyball, handball, basketball, badminton, skiing, weightlifting, soccer and gymnastics.
Three regional conferences were held on the sideline of the games: one for youth with disability, another for families of persons with disability, and a third for leadership training. Some 72 participants took part in these conferences.
Last November saw the Special Olympics MENA Regional Games torch lit in Cairo amid a carnival like atmosphere. The torch made its way through 23 Egyptian provinces before returning to Cairo for the official start of the games. Various people participated in the torch relay, among them Special Olympic athletes, their supporters, men, women, children, older people, and Egyptian of all walks of life.
The inaugural Special Olympic MENA Games were held in Cairo in 1999, following which they were held in several Arab capitals including Dubai, Rabat, Tunis and Damascus.
Special Olympics Egypt currently has 24,787 athletes and 480 coaches.
The holding of this year’s Special Olympic MENA Games carries the special significance that, despite the turmoil and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, sport can help bring a war-torn region together. Wars may rage on, but the will to survive and live is stronger.
10 December 2014