With an anticipated 7,000 athletes, 20,000 volunteers and 500,000 spectators, the Special Olympics World Games 2019 in Abu Dhabi will be the biggest sporting gathering ever seen in the UAE.

Preparations have been well under way for some time now and ahead of next year’s mega-event, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) had the opportunity for a ‘dry run’ of sorts – hosting the Special Olympics MENA Regional Games this March. That event was widely regarded as a successful test of everything from facilities to athlete experience, to volunteer utilisation. Now it’s full steam ahead for March 2019.

Bringing such a huge event to the UAE capital has presented myriad challenges and opportunities in terms of sponsorship, infrastructure and of course overall organisation. At the heart of those is Tala Al Ramahi, the Chief Strategy Officer of the Special Olympics Abu Dhabi. It is fair to say she has had a busy few months. Since working on the successful bid back in 2016, Al Ramahi has been immersed in the Special Olympics movement, attending the 2017 Winter World Games in Austria and engaging other host nations to discover and adapt ideas to incorporate in Abu Dhabi.

Tala Al Ramahi: Special Olympics Abu Dhabi’s CSO.

The importance of volunteers has consistently emerged as a key theme. At the MENA Games, 4,000 people gave up their time; next March that number will rise five-fold. Al Ramahi and her colleagues have been working hard to build the volunteer network, and she is confident that target will be hit.

“I think the MENA Games really showcased how we can use volunteers,” Al Ramahi explains to Sport Industry Insider. “One of the decisions early on was to have a very lean Local Organising Committee which meant we really had to rely on volunteers to deliver some major services during the games. We were taking a gamble by doing so but the volunteers we got on board really delivered. One of the reasons for this was that we dedicated a lot of time to both recruitment and training.

“You look at the likes of the London Olympics and of course that is a great example of how to successfully activate a volunteer programme. When we went to Graz in Austria for the Winter Games, we saw universities giving professors and students time off to volunteer. You could really see the city coming together; it wasn’t just about the Local Organising Committee, it was about the city putting on the Games for the world.

“The Special Olympics World Games will be the largest volunteer programme the UAE has ever seen; we want to make sure people here feel like the Games are for them – that they feel a part of it as much as we do.”

Volunteer logistics is clearly a vital part of the Games but there is still a need to generate significant funds to help the event run smoothly. Despite the scale of the Special Olympics, it is more niche than other, established sporting spectacles in the UAE. The increasingly saturated UAE sporting marketplace makes securing sponsorship a little more difficult, but Al Ramahi has been able to count on the support of a number of key partners – with more potentially in the pipeline.

“There are a lot of major companies that are already committed to well-established events in the region,” she says. “That is a challenge of course. And yes, there have been sponsorship meetings where the companies do not know about the Special Olympics and are learning about it for the first time.

Etihad Airways among the many sponsors on board for the Special Olympics World Games.

“However, when they understand what the Special Olympics is about, they are excited about being a part of it. It is so much more than a sporting event; it’s about a platform for changing societal perceptions and attitudes towards a certain section of society and promoting inclusion.

“Honestly, getting the right people on board hasn’t been too difficult.”

Among those are presenting sponsor ADNOC, which partnered with the Special Olympics almost immediately after the successful bid was confirmed, as well as the likes of Etihad Airways, Canon, Mubadala Development Company, Deloitte, Abu Dhabi Media, Lulu and Canon.

“This was a unique proposition for sponsors,” Al Rahami says. “It is a mega event – the world is coming to Abu Dhabi. It also very much aligns with the priorities of the UAE as a nation so a lot of sponsors saw that and wanted to be a part of this movement of creating change.

“We are trying to make our sponsorship programs very engaging so it’s not just about getting some money into our account and funding the games. It’s about creating programs for them so we can use the games to engage their employees and their clients to be a part of the Games.”

Another major challenge, as with any sporting event in the region, is spectator numbers. While the thousands of athletes will bring thousands more friends and family to Abu Dhabi, encouraging UAE residents to attend is a major focus for Al Ramahi and her team.

“Obviously the Special Olympics movement is well known in North America where it began but in the region the awareness is still growing. We also know in the region there isn’t a big spectator culture, especially with sport, so we have a team dedicated to engaging different communities.

“This is obviously an international event and we have over 200 nationalities living in the UAE so we want to make sure people here are a part of this event and can cheer on their teams. We want to use the embassies to reach out to their citizens. And we also want UAE embassies abroad to host competitors and their families and put on events.

“Partners such as the Abu Dhabi Department for Education and Knowledge have been really important, too, as we have a big focus on engaging schools and students. We are aiming to empower people with intellectual disabilities and to promote inclusion in our communities – young people are at the heart of this.”

Hosting an event the size of the Special Olympics is perhaps Abu Dhabi’s most ambitious sporting move yet and, inevitably, it has prompted discussions about whether this is a precursor to bidding for the summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. While Al Ramahi wouldn’t be drawn on whether such conversations have yet happened, she admitted that the Special Olympics is certainly a powerful display of the emirate’s capabilities.

“I do not think this will be the biggest event Abu Dhabi ever hosts. The feedback for the MENA Games has been overwhelmingly positive and we expect it to be the same after the World Games next year.

“There is no question that Abu Dhabi has the facilities, the talent, the infrastructure and the appetite to host even bigger sporting events going forward. That is an exciting prospect.”