To rousing cheers and standing ovations, the first Pan-African Special Olympics Games has officially opened on Sunday 26 January with 42 nations partipating in four sports.
Hani Mahmoud, SO Egypt president, welcomed the guests and Special Olympics athletes, families and volunteers. Mahmoud said Egypt had very strong bonds with the African continent since the 18th dynasty of the Pharaohs creating historical bonds “that can never die and here again Africa is revisiting Egypt”.
Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities, providing year-round training and activities to five million participants in 172 countries.
In addition to Mahmoud, attending the opening was Special Olympics Chief Executive Officer Mary Davis, Egyptian Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi, Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Al-Kabbaj, SO MENA President, Managing Director and head of the Local Organising Committee Ayman Abdel-Wahab, SO Africa President and Managing Director Charles Nyambe, Egyptian actor Hussein Fahmi, and the SO MENA ambassador in addition to a number of African ambassadors and diplomatic representatives.
Abdel-Wahab asked all to stand one minute in gratitude to President Al-Sisi under whose auspices the event is being held. Abdel-Wahab sent special gratitude to the volunteers whom he called the “lungs of the Games”.
“As we are in Cairo today celebrating 50 years of Special Olympics, we have to send a special tribute to Ms Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics movement,” Abdel-Wahab said. “Africa has come today to Egypt to celebrate the abilities of its Special Olympics athletes through its first Pan-African Games. The first SO MENA Regional Games in 1999 were held in Cairo and we are flooding back to Cairo for our first ever Pan-African Games. We are re-writing history but in a new edition that is radically different with a series of firsts: the first ever SO Pan-African Games, the first Games with 50 per cent female participation and the first ever unity of two regions which joined forces to combine the Games.”
Egyptian Minister Sobhi took the microphone to announce the official start of the Games. “The first Pan-African Special Olympics, on behalf of President A-Sisi, president of Egypt and head of the African Union, welcomes you all to your second home, Egypt. We are honoured to host your first ever African Games. We’re proud to be here with all the Special Olympics athletes and families from all over the African continent.
“Today, with your presence and participation, we send a message to the world that nothing is impossible when there is determination. Only a strong will can make a difference.”
“I am very pleased today to be among you,” Al-Kabbaj said. “It’s a blessing. Through these Games, you are sending a message to every village, every city and every nation, a message of hope and a message of victory. You are the true champions and we all are proud of you.”
Although he did not attend the opening ceremony, Timothy Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, expressed his extreme delight to have the first ever Special Olympics Pan-African Games.
“I am very optimistic that these Games are taking place on the first year of the second term of 50 years which reflects that we are moving in the right path for inclusion and acceptance of our people with intellectual disabilities in their societies and integrating them in their communities,” Shriver said.
“I am very blessed to attend the Special Olympics first Pan-African Games,” said Davis, the SO CEO.
“We use the power of sport and these Games to teach young people about the giftedness, about the talents, about the abilities of our people with intellectual disabilities. I am sure the first-ever Pan-African Games will shed light on the Special Olympics movement and will attract the attention of all. ” Davis added.
African delegations participating in the event sent special thanks to Al-Sisi, who is also chair of the African Union, the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people for hosting the Games.
Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Burkina Faso applauded the equality in male-female participation in the event. Urbain Amani, head of the Cote d’Ivoire delegation, expressed happiness at being part of the Games taking place in Egypt, praising the hospitality and the “great organisation” of the Egyptians. Amani added that the tournament provided a chance for the African continent to show off its talents and superiority and for the Special Olympics athletes to collect medals and learn new competition skills. She said the decision to give equal representation among genders was historic and reflects the sharp vision of the Special Olympics Africa and MENA regions leadership as it calls for equality and justice.
SO Kenya head of delegation Susan Masila was exhilarated at the idea of being part of the first ever Games which helps in spreading African culture and traditions. She was also elated by the volunteers’ role with the athletes and the participating delegations.
Annick Pikbougoum, SO Burkina Faso head of delegation, was thrilled by equal participation and said that it will be a new lesson taught to the world, and hoping that such a decision will come into effect in all coming Special Olympics competitions worldwide.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.