Dr Heidi Alaskary is the CEO of Special Olympics Saudi Arabia and is a passionate advocate for inclusion in the Kingdom. In our latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’, Dr Alaskary reflects on her life and career in sport.
I probably had a sportier upbringing than most Saudi women my age.
My first exposure to sports was at age six when I was thrown on a horse for fun. I was quickly hooked. I ended up doing equestrian quite seriously from around 6 until 18; I had my own horse and did dressage and jumping – practising four to five times a week. It was a huge passion for me growing up.
We were a very sporty family. We had a swimming pool so we did a lot of swim competitions and I remember roller skating too. Admittedly I didn’t do too much in terms of organised sport but we were always very active. My father is Saudi and my mother is American so we spent our summers in the US and I lived on my bike there. Of course I was exposed to a whole other sporting vocabulary too – I definitely know when to say football and when to say soccer!
I am a trained speech language pathologist.
My background has always been in diversity and inclusion and I didn’t start actually working in sport until a few years ago, when Her Royal Highness Princess Reema approached me and said, ‘We are really looking at doing diversity and inclusion within sports. Do you know anybody who might be interested?’ It turns out that somebody was me. It was a fascinating transition to move to a new sector such as sports and it has been an adventure contributing to the development and buildout of inclusive sports in Saudi Arabia.
Princess Reema is an inspirational person to work with.
She is a true visionary and we are very proud to have her as our chairwoman of the board for Special Olympics Saudi Arabia. I’ve worked for many different people and everybody has been a gift throughout my career for different reasons at different times, but I think you’re truly blessed occasionally to work with somebody who really has such a clear idea and can articulate exactly where they see things going. She is extremely accessible, extremely supportive, extremely passionate and genuine.
Sport is a fantastic tool for inclusion.
Whether it is watching or playing, it creates a sense of instant community and involvement like few other things. Sport is an amazing platform to be able to offer people the opportunity to be included; it has nothing to do with what your diagnosis or impairment is, it is about working together towards a joint goal. In sports we can breakdown almost every barrier, you don’t even have to speak the same language. You get on the field, everybody knows the rules, you participate. It breaks down communication barriers, it breaks down the focus on disability and it just really highlights that spirit of adventure and spirit of belonging to something.
People can have fun together and create this wonderful team spirit to support each other. We saw this with the Special Olympics Saudi Arabia team in Abu Dhabi last year. It was a very big deal that we sent a team and everyone was so supportive. The boys cheered the girls, the girls cheered the boys, and the families and friends cheered everyone. Even people who were sitting back in Saudi Arabia were following along and when you’re talking about inclusion that’s extremely powerful.
The Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi was the highlight of my career.
It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it. It was the largest games ever held in the history of Special Olympics, an absolutely phenomenal event. The UAE were fantastic hosts – the quality of services were really executed at a world class level, which was so heartening. Often disability sport can get the backseat but it really showed that if you are inclusive, there really is no difference between people with disabilities and others. It was by far the best event I’ve ever been to that focused on people with disabilities, period. The spirit and just the pure joy was unparalleled. It is a standard that any event should always aspire to.
Saudi Arabia will host the Special Olympics but inclusion is the first priority.
When and where that Special Olympics happens we’ll see, but I think having goals like that is very important. Of course, hosting the Special Olympics helps the whole country rally round and really anchors the long-term storyline. But more importantly, our biggest aspiration is to be able to serve people with intellectual disabilities within Saudi Arabia. Having an extremely strong local program is the most important part of this story. Saudi Arabia is a big country but we plan on having a national program and thirteen regional sub-programs. We have ambitions to serve a large number of individuals. That’s where our focus is now.
Attitudes have changed in the Gulf towards disabilities.
We have to remember that the countries in the region are still relatively young but I would say in terms of the discourse around disability today, we are right up there with everybody else in the world. We may have started later but we are having the same discussions and we’ve actually been very savvy in learning from others. As a professional in the field I would say the Gulf is head-to-head with almost any other nation in the world in terms of rights-based discussions or services. Of course the challenge is making sure families are involved in this discourse and have access to the services. Are we giving access to enough people at the right time when they need it for it to be impactful? To be honest, I think every country struggles with that, not just GCC.
Attending the Formula E in Riyadh was a transformative experience.
There is such an appetite for sports now in Saudi Arabia and I always think we should take two seconds to really just pinch ourselves as we are living history. We’re going to look back and say that this time was truly historic. The sporting events we’ve had have been fantastic – not just the competition but everything around them. There are so many activations and with Formula E in particular, they have recognised from an inclusion perspective that it is a great sport for people with autism – it’s the only motorsport that isn’t loud because the cars are electric. That was beautiful to see.
It was a great example to show how sporting events can think about including everybody. It’s about looking across the board and seeing how we can be as inclusive as possible. We’ve been trying to work with a lot of different entities to make sure inclusion is something being addressed. Is it always perfect? No, but I think there’s always that openness to continuously improve. We speak to the GSA, we speak to federations, we speak to the Saudi Olympic Committee. Every single major player has inclusion on their agenda – it’s just a matter of training and deepening understanding.
The Riyadh Marathon showed community sport is important too.
The growth of non-professional, non-competitive sports is just as exciting as those big professional events. Everything from hiking to biking, targeting people of different ages and abilities. I remember at the Riyadh Marathon a couple of years ago there was a gentleman almost 80 years old, who finished the marathon. Seeing people out in wheelchairs or people with autism spectrum disorder participating in family days, all this inclusive activity is brilliant. We are seeing the ecosystem of sport develop and when that really blossoms it will be very exciting.
My father gave me my best piece of advice.
I can also remember, at my first job, I was promised that if I stayed with the company I’d eventually get a CEO seat. My dad stopped me and he said, ‘Never take a position for a seat or a title – the seat has wheels which means it can move around or even fall over’. That was one bit of advice but the one that resonated most was when he told me to always do work that helps your conscience sleep well at night and always do something that’s impactful. Through my career and through each activity we work on at Special Olympics Saudi Arabia, we are constantly asking ‘what’s the impact?’