Floor hockey takes desert countries to Special Olympics winter games

Posted: Tuesday, March 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Isa Ahmed is not quite sold on the idea of eating turkey.

Asked how he likes the food he finds in his box lunches at the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games Alaska, Isa, 16, a floor hockey player, carefully chooses his reply.

''I love my country's food,'' he said through a translator, smiling.

In Bahrain, a Middle East island nation in the Persian Gulf, chicken's the poultry of choice, turkey's unheard of, and fish and beef are more likely to be on the menu, said Isa's coach, Nasser Nasser Mohamed.

Isa and Mohamed Hassan, also 16, traveled 38 hours by jet to attend the games. Though they're from a region more familiar with desert than dogsledding, they're part of an effort to expand participation in Special Olympics.

The other six sports at the games require ice or snow: alpine skiing, cross country skiing, figure skating, speed skating, snowshoeing and snowboarding.


Members of the Canadian contingent parade in the opening ceremonies of the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Anchorage, Alaska, Sunday, March 4, 2001. The 10-day games will involve nearly 2,700 athletes from 69 nations.

AP Photo/Michael Dinneen

Floor hockey requires six players with sticks that look like broom handles and a soft puck that looks like a flattened doughnut. They run up and down a wooden or concrete ''rink'' using their sticks to propel the puck toward the opponent's goal.

Floor hockey is the most popular sport at the games. From the Middle East, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Lebanon sent teams.

Essam Kamal, Special Olympics regional sports manager for the Middle East and North Africa, wanted more of the region's athletes involved and obtained a grant last year to train athletes and coaches in floor hockey in 10 other countries.

''This is a good opportunity for the growing of the number of athletes,'' Kamal said.

Kamal wanted a regional team from the Middle East and North Africa to take the floor under the banner of MENA-Select. But visa or financial problems prevented athletes from Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Palestine from attending. That left athletes from Bahrain and Mauritania without enough teammates. Instead of a regional team, they were added to the team from Jordan.

Isa, who's training to be a carpenter, has never seen ice hockey, except on television.

He did not have a strong concept of what Alaska would be like, and said he imagined it would be like visiting Abu Dhabi, one of the seven sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates, another Middle East country.

Instead he found below-freezing temperatures and snow.

''Most of our athletes, this is the first time they've seen snow or ice,'' Kamal said. ''It's like a dream.''

Isa's family gave him a big send-off at the airport. Kamal said Isa's mother never imagined he would be jetting off around the world and he's the talk of the village of Isatown, population about 2,000.

On Sunday, Isa was picked to carry the Special Olympics torch on behalf of Middle East countries.

''They are the best athletes I've ever worked with,'' Kamal said. ''They are a gift to us from God. Every day we learn something from them.''

No matter what the score, the athletes take joy in playing.

''For them, win or lose, it's the same thing,'' Kamal said. ''For us, all it is is win.''

''We don't feel what's going on around us until they open our eyes,'' Kamal said.

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