Special Olympics: Great Britain hope to make big impact in Abu Dhabi

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A team of 129 athletes will represent Great Britain in 17 sports at the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games in the United Arab Emirates.

The Games will take place in venues in Abu Dhabi and Dubai from 14-21 March.

A total of 7,500 athletes from about 170 countries will take part in 24 sports.

The event, which is being held in the Middle East for the first time, is for athletes with an intellectual (learning) disability.

It is hoped the event will build a legacy of improved health, education and opportunities.

As well as the Games, the build-up featured a Host Town programme and a Torch Run.

What sports feature at the World Games?

The 15th Summer Games will feature 24 sports and will have a record number of female athletes competing.

There are three main categories of sports - court sports, races and judged competitions.

The court sports are badminton, basketball, beach volleyball, bocce, handball, table tennis, tennis and volleyball.

Athletics, cycling and swimming are included in the races, along with kayaking, open-water swimming, roller skating, sailing and triathlon.

Equestrian, judo, artistic gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics make up the judged competitions while the programme is completed by bowling, football, golf and powerlifting.

As well as the athletes and their families and coaches, the event is set to attract 20,000 volunteers and up to 500,000 spectators.

Members of the GB team with Department for Work and Pensions minister Sarah Newton
Members of the GB team visited the Houses of Parliament recently and met Department for Work and Pensions minister Sarah Newton

What the athletes say

Among the GB team is cyclist Kiera Byland. She is hoping to match her achievement of three golds from the last Games in Los Angeles in 2015, when she was Britain's most successful competitor.

"I could be having a miserable day but when I go out and ride my bike, I feel 10 times happier afterwards," the Bolton rider told BBC's Inside Out programme.

"When I was younger, I struggled to understand writing, reading numbers, telling the time - which I still struggle with today.

"I had a hard time at school and I thought I was worthless.

"But Special Olympics has given me confidence, the chance to believe in myself and that I am actually worth something. I have that happiness again."

Team-mate Liam Duhig from Surrey will take part in the judo competition at his second World Games.

"Special Olympics is a fantastic programme," he said. "Every athlete has an intellectual disability therefore you are all the same and so no-one makes fun of you or bullies you and you are able to make friends.

"Everyone, regardless of ability or disability, is the same. It offers a level playing field and friendship."

Special Olympics GB chief executive Michelle Carney wants her association to continue to transform the lives of those with an intellectual disability.

"Special Olympics GB is more than just an opportunity to take part in sport," she said.

"It transforms lives, produces opportunities to increase confidence, realise potential, develop physical fitness and mental well-being, demonstrate courage and experience new friendships - and most importantly for the athletes and their families to have fun.

"It is such a privilege and joy to work alongside our amazing athletes to spread the word about Special Olympics GB, so we can reach more of the 1.5 million people in this country with an intellectual disability. "

Who created the Special Olympics?

The driving force behind the Special Olympics was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of former US president John F Kennedy and the subject of a BBC documentary.

Another Kennedy sibling, Rosemary, had learning difficulties and after a lobotomy, which ended up leaving her more incapacitated, she was sent away to a home for those with intellectual disabilities in Wisconsin.

The incident had a profound effect on Eunice, and she went on to be advocate for those with intellectual disabilities,

Eunice Kennedy-Shriver with her brother John
Eunice and her brother John were part of a close-knit family

She persuaded JFK to create the first US legislation for people with intellectual disabilities and invited young people with Down's syndrome, autism, and other intellectual disabilities to her family home to compete in sports.

"My mother was a master politician without ever holding political office," said her son Tim.

"When her brother was elected president my mother saw an opening and she drove a truck through it."

Daughter Maria added: "She wanted to change the laws so that people with special needs would be protected under the law, would be educated under the law, could have their housing under the law and could really have fulfilling lives under the law. Protection, dignity, respect."

How has the Special Olympics developed?

The first formal Special Olympics was held in Chicago in 1968 - 50 years on the movement helps 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries.

The influence of Kennedy Shriver ensured backing from the likes of world leaders including multiple US presidents, former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, as well as sports stars such as Muhammad Ali, Nadia Comenechi and Didier Drogba, Superman star Christopher Reeve and singer Nicole Scherzinger.

"My mum had a great capacity to go to the top, to find those people and bring them on side," recalls son Tim. "And it didn't matter whether they were Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, capitalists or communists."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver with Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was one of those who Kennedy Shriver got to support the Special Olympics

Former US President Bill Clinton was one of those who supported Kennedy Shriver's cause.

"She was a very striking woman, she was tall, angular. She had this great shock of hair and she would stare at you, stare a hole at you, just pushing her cause," he said.

"She was the classic example of a tiny group of people that we identified when I was President. They were called the 'just say yes'. In other words if they came at you they were going to do what you wanted so you might as well save yourself a lot of time and trouble and just go on and say yes.

"That's what Eunice was. She was so intense but it was loving. You knew that she was right, you knew that she was trying to get you to do something that was right."

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