Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – When the last punch has been thrown and the final kick landed at the Riyadh 2023 World Combat Games, one of the most enduring legacies of the 11-day event will undoubtedly be its full inclusivity.
Alongside the champions of champions competing here in 16 martial arts and combat sports are the champions of all abilities: 60 Para and Special athletes with physical, intellectual, or visual impairments.
It is the first major sports event in the world where able-bodied, Para and Special athletes are participating on the same field of play, on the same national teams, and with the same goal: to top a medals table where podium finishes from all disciplines count toward a unified team total.
The Para and Special athletes represent 32 countries in total, and come from as far away as Australia, Bolivia, Cameroon, Uzbekistan. Some are sensory deprived; others are in wheelchairs. All are extremely able.
“Just to be here at the World Combat Games is amazing,” says Ju-Jitsu athlete Rustin Hughes of the USA, who won silver in the Men’s Para Ne-Waza -85kg Handicapped event. “I think it’s awesome to have the Para division, all these people that have disabilities but don’t let it overcome them – they actually rise above their disabilities.”
In addition to Ju-Jitsu, other sports featuring Para and Special disciplines at Riyadh 2023 are Aikido, Armwrestling, Muaythai, SAMBO and Savate.
The first gold medal won by a Para athlete at these Games came on Day 1 when Elder Luis Moreno Garcia of Venezuela beat Moldova’s Oleg Nemtan 7-0 in the final of the -79kg Men’s Blind SAMBO category.
After qualifying for Riyadh 2023 with a fifth-place finish in June at the Asia-Oceania SAMBO Championships, being crowned World Combat Games champion felt like redemption for the Venezuelan.
“This gold medal win made me realise that SAMBO is really a sport that opens up new horizons,” he said. “SAMBO gives you the opportunity to feel alive: a normal life, like that of ordinary people. And this is the most important element of the sport for me.”
Moreno added that he was pleased with his sport’s handling of athletes with visual impairments, allowing them to decide whether to participate in SAMBA simply to stay fit, or to take things up a notch by competing for their countries internationally.
Asked for a report card on the World Combat Games, Moreno was complementary: “Everything was just wonderful. This is the highest level this discipline has reached after the regional Asia-Oceania World Championship. I want to congratulate all the people who took part in organising these competitions.
“I would really like to see as many international SAMBO tournaments for the blind and visually impaired as possible. The main thing we lack is experience, including the experience of participating in international tournaments.”
The commitment to inclusivity, non-discrimination and equality at Riyadh 2023 is one that was established by the organisers of this edition of the World Combat Games, namely the local organizing committee, the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and the Saudi Ministry of Sport.
It stems from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030, a government-led reform initiative aimed at producing a “vibrant society, thriving economy, and ambitious nation.” Among its many objectives is the promotion of sports for all, which includes nationwide initiatives to provide life-changing support to people with disabilities.
The resolution to include Para and Special athletes at Riyadh 2023 exemplifies the Kingdom’s continued commitment to equality, while continuing to bolster its presence in global sporting events.
It also sends a powerful message of empowerment. “I saw firsthand at the medal ceremony how emotional and thankful the Para athletes are to have this opportunity,” said World Combat Games Chair Stephan Fox. “Not only to be a part of this event and to come to Saudi Arabia, but to share the same medal table with the other athletes, be at the same medal ceremony, have the same Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and not just be isolated in their own different events. That makes this event very special.
“Of course, to organise an all-inclusive event logistically is a little more challenging with the access for wheelchairs, transportation, the handlers for the special-needs athletes, etc. But it’s worth the effort. If you really look at the smiles, the tears, the joy at the medal ceremony, it is 100 percent worth the effort.”
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The World Combat Games are an international multi-sport event featuring the best athletes in combat sports and martial arts. They were established to celebrate the athletes and values of these sports in one place, and to expose them to an international audience. The World Combat Games concept aims for a compact and manageable event that offers cities an opportunity for focused international promotion, engagement with local communities (in particular young people), and the advancement of public health and wellness agendas through inspiring initiatives encouraging participation in combat sports.
For the full results, competition schedule and live-streaming of the Riyadh 2023 World Combat Games, please visit the official Riyadh 2023 website. More information can be found on the World Combat Games website, including the list of broadcasters providing coverage of the Games in 100+ countries and territories worldwide.