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From bridesmaid to the altar

Sweden was supposed to host the 2021 Special Olympics Winter Games but the coronavirus gave the honour to Russia’s Kazan, reports Abeer Anwar

Abeer Anwar , Tuesday 14 Jul 2020
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SO MENA athletes performing in previous Winter Games in ice hockey, snowshoeing and floor ball in Austria 2017
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Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 Special Olympics Winter Games, which were due to take place in Sweden next January, were shifted to Kazan, Russia, in 2022.

Kazan was selected even though it came second after Sweden in the bid to host the event. When the Special Olympics’ board of directors asked Special Olympics Sweden to postpone the games one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it refused. Sweden said it had a busy calendar in 2022, leaving Kazan as the second option.

Kazan is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan in southwest Russia, on the banks of the Volga and Kazanka rivers.

The selection was based on the reputation of Kazan as a sports city after it was selected as Russia’s sports capital in 2009. It also has a proven aim of transforming the lives and prospects of people with intellectual disabilities across Russia. It has a strong legacy of using the power of sport to establish thriving, inclusive communities by transforming attitudes and behaviours throughout Russia and the world.

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, providing year-round training and activities to five million participants and Unified Sports partners in 172 countries.

“Hosting the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2022 adds Kazan to an elite group of international cities leading the inclusion charge for people with intellectual disabilities,” said Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics. “The global Special Olympics movement has confidence in Kazan’s ability to host a world-class games that deliver a lasting impact.  

“We are very happy to be going to Kazan Russia for the Winter Games,” SO Middle East and North Africa President and Managing Director Ayman Abdel-Wahab said. “We have been taking part in the Winter Games as a region since its first edition in Alaska 2001 and since then we haven’t missed it once. I am sure our MENA region athletes will enjoy their Winter Games this time as Russia has vast experience in hosting sports events and recently the football World Cup which we all enjoyed. Congratulations to Kazan,” Abdel-Wahab said. He added that SO Saudi Arabia and SO Egypt had qualified to the unified floor ball competition, SO Morocco and SO Egypt to the men’s events and SO United Arab Emirates and SO Morocco to the women’s event in floor ball.

SO Egypt President Hani Mahmoud expressed his feelings: “I am very happy that we still have enough time to train for the Winter Games. In the last edition held in Austria 2017, we collected five medals and we were received by his Excellency [Egyptian] President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, alongside the World Youth Forum that was held in Sharm El-Sheikh at the time. This time our athletes are determined to train hard and exert their utmost effort o collect more medals and be recognised by the president once again.”

SO Egypt National Director Bassem Al-Tohami made it clear that the postponement of the games for one year “was our golden chance. We will be able to train our athletes well. The Covid-19 pandemic affected our preparation plan but we were able to hold a number of training sessions for our coaches, trainers, families and athletes on Zoom to keep in touch during the lockdown. Now we are going back to our normal activities and hope we will be well prepared for Kazan which the athletes are longing for.”

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Since its founding two decades ago Special Olympics Russia has attracted 128,000 athletes which represent four per cent of the estimated three million people with intellectual disabilities. It is aiming to reach all 85 regions of Russia to attract 200,000 by the end of 2025.

 The Special Olympics World Winter Games are among the world’s most prestigious sporting events, uniquely focused on advancing a truly inclusive world for people with intellectual disabilities. World Games also provide a prominent platform for the movement’s work in health, education and leadership for athletes.

The Special Olympics World Winter Games Kazan 2022 will mark the first time the organisation has brought a global competition to Russia. No stranger to major sports events, Kazan has played host an array of top sports competitions, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup, 2015 FINA World Championships and the 27th Summer Universiade.

Two thousand Special Olympics athletes and Unified partners (athletes without intellectual disabilities) from 108 nations will compete at the World Winter Games in 2022. They will be joined by some 3,000 volunteers and 4,000 dignitaries and family members, making the event a truly global offering.

“We are thrilled to host the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2022,” said Olga Slutsker, president of Special Olympics Russia. “Hosting this prestigious and deeply significant event gives us the opportunity to show Russia and the world that people with intellectual disabilities are capable of competing at the highest levels of sport. It will demonstrate the power of our movement not only as a sports organisation but also as a leader in the drive towards a truly inclusive world.”

Kazan is well-equipped to host the seven sports of World Winter Games — alpine skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, floor ball, cross-country skiing, figure skating and short track speed skating. Kazan is a city with a thousand-year history situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The World Winter Games will draw support from the local government of Kazan, the state government of Tatarstan, and the federal government of Russia. Kazan is one of the country’s largest economic, scientific and cultural centres, a melting pot of diverse cultures, ethnicities and traditions, and an exciting new destination for Special Olympics.


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Planning for the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2022 is officially underway as Kazan after it was announced as official host city of the games. Despite social distancing restrictions due to Covid-19, enthusiasm about the announcement was shared virtually.Special Olympics International CEO Timothy Shriver congratulated Kazan. “Congratulations to Kazan, the sports capital of Russia and soon to be the capital of the Special Olympics movement worldwide, as Kazan prepares to host the 2022 Special Olympics World Winter Games. It is an invitation for countries from all over the world who hear and see about these games, as they will be broadcast around the world. An invitation to end the fear of difference – to finally and definitively champion the gifts of all human beings, to celebrate through sport the end of all forms of exclusion and discrimination and to do it with joy at the Russian identity and the Russian mindset.”

Tatiana Baranova, SO Russia’s athlete ambassador, was quoted saying: “We are so excited to host the World Winter Games in Kazan. The athletes of Special Olympics Russia look forward to opening our doors to our friends from around the world. Special Olympics Russia and I can’t wait to welcome you all to Kazan in 2022!”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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