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"Creating a societal movement for change"

Clayton D’Costa, Director Planning & Program Integration Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, about a home for tolerance and inclusion in the MENA region, the first-ever female team from Saudi Arabia and the vital contribution of people with intellectual disabilities.

tw: Six weeks ago Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 ended. Which moment will you never forget?
Clayton D’Costa: When our staff member of determination hugged me after the event and said he wouldn’t forget me and what an amazing experience it was to be a part of the Games.

It took 50 years before the Special Olympics went to the Middle East and North Africa. Why?
I would humbly say that this is not for me to answer. That said, I am truly proud to have led the planning for the first Special Olympics World Games in the MENA region under the leadership of our Chairman and Managing Director. His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, has proclaimed the year 2019 to be the "The Year of Tolerance" in the UAE and by hosting the largest sports and humanitarian event in the world this March it clearly sent a message to the world that tolerance and inclusivity have a home in the MENA region.

In Los Angeles at the Special Olympics 2015 you had 6,500 athletes from 165 countries in Abu Dhabi 7,500 athletes from 191 countries. How comes?
In hosting the first ever Special Olympics World Games in the MENA region, we really wanted to bring the World to the UAE. Our intention was to make the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 the largest, most unified, and most diverse Games in the history of the Special Olympics movement, and we were successful in doing just that. Abu Dhabi hosted delegations from a record of 200 nations as well as the highest number of female athletes, including the first-ever female team from Saudi Arabia, and the most unified partners. The New Nations Program was successful in bringing new teams from countries all over the world to compete and be part of the Games in the UAE, these included eleven sub-Saharan African teams who had only recently established their own Special Olympics programs. We worked closely with Special Olympics in locations where programs did not previously exist.
The World Games Abu Dhabi aimed to be the most unified Games in the 50-year history of the Special Olympics movement, including people with intellectual disabilities in every aspect of the event. Did you succeed?

I think Tim Shriver the Chairman of Special Olympics International, son of the founder of the movement Eunice Kennedy Shriver, said it best at our opening ceremony: "We come to set humanity free from the chains of judgement and exclusion." To this end, people with intellectual disabilities were involved in every element of the Games – they were among more than 21,000 volunteers who attended every venue, they were the ‘Makers’ who helped to create the spectacular Opening Ceremony, they filled vital roles within the LOC and filed fantastic news reports each day, often unearthing fabulous stories and tales of human endeavor, spirit, determination and achievement in the process. The Games would not have been the incredible success it was without the vital contribution of people with intellectual disabilities who proved that a disability truly is no barrier to what a person can achieve.
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Clayton D’Costa, Director Planning & Program Integration Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Special Olympics is the world’s largest humanitarian sporting event and a global movement which focuses on the empowerment of People of Determination with intellectual disabilities through the power of sport.

What do you have to consider when involving people with intellectual and physical disabilities in events?
Ensuring the health and safety of all the athletes taking part in a Special Olympics event is of the utmost importance. Many of the athletes have a range of medical conditions that must be taken into account. As such, events like the World Games are much more than just sporting occasions that highlight the achievements of athletes with intellectual disabilities. At its core, Special Olympics is a movement for the promotion of health and well-being among a section of society that is, unfortunately, often neglected and suffers from debilitating but easily treated health conditions. The Health Athletes Program was an essential part of the Games. Teams of highly trained medical professionals from the UAE community carried out a range of check-ups on thousands on athletes competing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The program screened for seven separate disciplines such as Fit Feet (podiatry), Health Promotion (better health and well-being), Healthy Hearing (audiology). Another way in which officials at the Games helped to ensure the well-being of the athletes was through the use of special smart watches. Handed out to each team, the watches monitored the heart rate and location of each of the 7,000 athletes. This helped medical teams spot any potential health issues that may arise and allowed coaches and delegation staff to constantly know the whereabouts of each member of their country’s Special Olympics squad. The UAE Games was proud to be the first such event to introduce smart watches to each of the participating teams.

The motto "Meet the Determined" was the idea of your hosts and was perceived very well. Will you carry on with it?
The "Meet the Determined" campaign was indeed spearheaded by our talented and amazing Marketing and Communications team. The campaign played on the term ‘People of Determination’ which is what His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai decreed that all People with Disabilities would be referred to as in the UAE. I am proud to live in a country where this term transcends the event and is woven into the very fabric of dialogue in the nation.


The competitions took place at nine venues across Abu Dhabi and Dubai. For your command center you chose the new meeting space "The Hive" at ADNEC. Why?
In line with the vision of my Managing Director Khalfan Al Mazrouei to think differently I wanted to reimagine the notion of Mega Event Coordination centres. I was convinced that by leveraging an innovative space such as the Hive at ADNEC that it could not only offer a different take on how such coordination centres are structured, but also have a profound effect on the mental well-being of the staff who support. The warm, innovative and functional space helped the overall calmness and mood (in what traditionally is a very intense and high-pressured space) and combined with cutting edge technology assets and systems provided for a highly effective coordination centre.

The next Special Olympics World Games 2023 will take place in the German capital, in Berlin. What could the Germans learn from your hosts in the United Arab Emirates?
Firstly, I would say to place an integrated planning and readiness approach at the heart of preparations for the games. Abu Dhabi was able to rise to the challenge of delivering this complex mega event in around two years – this in comparison to the seven to five-year Olympic Games delivery timeline, so the evidence speaks for itself. Secondly, focus on establishing a legacy of long-lasting, positive change that will benefit people with intellectual disabilities for years to come. Abu Dhabi was successful in creating a movement for change through inclusive community-driven events such as Walk Unified, the promotion of Unified Sports and the establishment of the Champion School program, which will actively pair youngsters with and without disabilities to participate in sporting and cultural events. Initiatives like these, that actively break down barriers and change perceptions, will be effective in bringing about change. By focusing on ensuring the next Games are truly inclusive and unified, that the whole community is involved, aware and engaged, that schools, universities, and the public and private sector are willing participants, you will be able to create a societal movement for change that will benefit everyone, with or without intellectual disabilities.
"Abu Dhabi was successful in creating a movement for change through inclusive communitydriven events."
Clayton D’Costa, Director Planning & Program Integration Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019