Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi more about lasting legacy than medals for athletes like Josie McIntyre

Matt Jones - Editor 20:14 06/04/2019
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Josie McIntyre (front) celebrates with her family.

For many spectators and sports enthusiasts, the 15th staging of the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi last month might have been just another stellar addition to the myriad of star-studded and big-name sporting events packed into the sizable UAE sporting calendar.

But for many competitors and their families, the impact and benefits will go far beyond the initial buzz generated from the week-long event.

The 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games was held in the UAE capital from March 14-21. It was the first Special Olympics to take place in the Middle East and the largest sports and humanitarian event recorded, featuring 200 nations, more than 7,000 athletes and 20,000 registered volunteers.

And while the attention and fanfare may have died down as we move on to the next big event to be staged here, for teenager Josie McIntyre and her family, it will have a lasting impact and lead to many more doors opening up.

Sports-mad Josie was part of the UAE squad at the games. The 13-year-old daredevil loves gymnastics, dance, swimming, sailing and even surfing, and earned two medals during the week, taking home silvers in rhythmic gymnastics and dance sport in her age categories.

And while the entire McIntyre family are thrilled with her double success, what they’re even more excited about is what the future holds for Josie.

Josie won two silver medals.

Josie won two silver medals.

“The gymnastics and Special Olympics has opened up our eyes into what can be possible for her in the future, which we want to make as broad as possible,” said dad Rick McIntyre.

“Josie does surf, dance, sailing, swimming, gymnastics, she’s so busy. We want to give her as many opportunities as possible. She’s taken to gymnastics but loves sport in general, she lives for it. We’re going to try to introduce her to lots of other sports, including team sports.”

Wellington Academy Silicon Oasis pupil Josie was born here in the UAE in 2006 to New Zealand father, Rick, and Welsh mother, Clare, who have lived in the Emirates since 2003.

Josie has spent the last seven years at Wellington Academy but moved to the Dubai Centre for Special Needs in 2018 – their smaller class sizes cater for her needs beautifully, says Rick.

“She loves school but nothing more than PE – easily her favorite subject,” he added.

“She has always been uber-flexible so we started taking her to gym a year ago. Fit Republic in Sports City gave her and some of her gym buddies the chance to train for the Special Olympics and represent the UAE in gymnastics.

“She’s also is part of a dance group at Step Up Academy in Motor City – this is a special needs group that regularly perform at events. They entered the dance sport category at the special Olympics.”

The Special Olympics movement was started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver – sister to former President of the United States, John F Kennedy – half a century ago.

The first two games were held in Chicago – the inaugural event in 1968, before moving outside the US for the first time in 2003 when Ireland were the hosts. It has since been held in China, Greece and Germany but coming to the UAE, and the Middle East in general, was a challenge.

But Rick insists the UAE has embraced the event and athletes with special needs, or ‘people of determination’ as they became known in the lead-up to and during the Special Olympics World Summer Games.

“The Special Olympics was incredibly special and there’s lots of opportunities to explore,” he added.

SO Closing ceremony 1

“The UAE gives us lots of opportunities. Inclusion is on the national agenda and Josie’s reaping the benefits. We’re fortunate that it’s 2019 and not 2000 I guess. The country has made incredible progress and we’re privileged.

“We’re grateful to the rulers of the UAE for valuing people of determination, it’s a really positive way of looking at and valuing people with special needs. It’s changed attitudes and opened up opportunities for kids and people with determination.

“Josie was highly valued and the Special Olympics gave her a platform where she was super proud and able to display her gymnastics skills alongside her ability to woo a crowd and the judges. Josie quickly became famous for high-fiving all the judges after each event.

“We’re still in awe of what happened last month. The rate of change over the last few years has been immense when it comes to inclusion. Josie is part of this national agenda and we actually feel it. It’s tangible.

“The UAE has declared loudly that people of determination have so much to offer.”

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