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Special Olympics Winter Games open with 'Flame of Hope' and the face of refugee athlete Mina Bahgat

A view of Planai Stadium in Schladming during the Opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games. (Photo: GEPA pictures/ Christopher Kelemen)
by Dovile Seduikyte, AIPS Young Reporter, Lithuania

GRAZ, March 18, 2017 - The Special Olympics kicked off in Schladming, Austria, with a bang. There was a lot of joy in the air at the rainy opening ceremony in Planai stadium. Jason Mraz, Helene Fischer and Grace VanderWall weren’t the only celebrities on the stage. The“Flame of Hope” was carried by the very special Mina Bahgat. The refugee from the Middle East who himself through sports found hope and a better life.

The ceremony started with a downhill light ski show and a magical performance by Maria, a girl with Down syndrome and a big smile. Just like many of those walking down during the parade of nations, she knew that they had just become a part of something very big.

Just like at the Olympic Games the Parade various greatly – from just one sole participant from Armenia and FYR Macedonia to 320 athletes representing the host nation Austria. South Africa’s team had a special guest – princess of Monaco Charlene walked with them. The former swimmer was a representative of South Africa herself and is a big fan of sports.

The opening was a feast of music as well. German singer Helene Fischer performed “Fighter”, the official anthem of Special Olympics. “Stand a little taller and put a fist into the sky,” advised the singer and the stands went wild.

Mina Bahgat – the face of hope

It was Mina Bahgat who confidently lead the athletes into Planai Stadium and was one of the main carriers of “Flame of Hope”, but his story shines even brighter.

“My name is Mina. I am 26 years old and I am a refugee. But I am lucky to live in Netherlands,” Mina presented himself at the United Nations headquarters earlier this month. He had been invited to share his story.

In 2009, Mina, together with his mother Maria and brother Michael fled the Middle East and sought the refugee asylum in Netherlands. As Christians it was too dangerous for them to stay in the Middle East. He endured many struggles until he found the Special Olympics movement.

As a child Mina could barely run and hated going to school. He never felt accepted. Since arriving in the Netherlands and joining Special Olympics he lost 20 kilos and improved his all-around motor abilities. Now he is a speed skater. At the Special Olympics he is going for no less than double gold medals.

But his transformation from shy and struggling teenager to a self confident man is outstanding as it is. It took a lot of hard training and will power. That is what sports requires. It is not the easiest path. But Special Olympics proves that it is a path open for everyone, no matter your background.

“I can. I want to. I will do it now!” that is the mantra of Mina and all other Special Olympics athletes.

Special tribute

Mina’s success story embodies everything Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver wanted to achieve.

She founded Special Olympics 48 years ago, so people with intellectual disabilities could express themselves through sports.

Her son Timothy Shriver, who is the chairman of Special Olympics, addressed the athletes at the Opening ceremony: “Let us show everyone that we can win. We can and we will create a world of welcome!

He also paid tribute to Hermann Kröll, Special Olympics Austria president from 1993, who died last year, and who was the man who turned the Special Olympics into a global movement. It was due to his efforts that Austria hosted the first Special Olympics held out of the USA in 1993.

For the dessert there was a duet by Jason Mraz and Grace VanderWall. A very cozy performence that closed the night.

“Special Olympics changed my life. It gave me a new beginning,” said smiling Mina Bahgat at the UN headquarters. He brought hope and inspiration not just for suffering refugees but to all those 200 million people around the world who live with intellectual disabilities.

There will be so many of these happy faces, and so many of their stories in the cities of Graz, Schladming and Ramsau in the following week.

Follow Dovile on Twitter @DovileSeduikyte

The Young Reporters Programme has been made possible thanks to the support of the European Union's Erasmus + programme

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