Meet the Match
A Digital Pro Spreads the Paralympic Message in Saudi Arabia
Growing up in a small coastal town on the Red Sea, Ahmad Khairallah was never given the opportunity to play sports during his childhood. Born with Osteogenesis imperfecta (often referred to as “brittle bone disease”), he was constantly at risk of injury, which mostly restricted him to the home. At that time in rural Saudi Arabia, support and services for people with disabilities were not commonplace. However, his mother helped him and his two brothers with their schooling and, most importantly, taught Ahmad to believe he would achieve great success in the future.
“My mother couldn’t read or write, but she believed in the power of education and always pushed me and my brothers,” Ahmad says. “If she didn’t have courage and drive for me, I wouldn’t have made it.”
For young people with disabilities in Ahmad’s community, he says the only option aside from giving up was to move to a larger city with more opportunities. Driven to become involved in sports and society, Ahmad chose the former and moved to Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, and later to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he earned a higher diploma in technology from the Asian Institute of Management Science. He is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in e-commerce from Saudi Electronic University.
Even though Ahmad never played sports growing up, he has greatly admired Olympic and Paralympic athletes since watching the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games on television. Ahmad first witnessed people with disabilities playing sport with his own eyes when fellow university students invited him to come watch their goalball practices—the only adaptive sport offered at the time.
Given his interest in sport and expertise in I.T., Ahmad later joined the Saudi Arabian National Paralympic Committee as its web and social media administrator. Since 2015, this role has provided him with an opportunity to blend his two passions, and work with other people in the disability community.
“Going to practices, I see how people with disabilities enjoy sports so much,” Ahmad says. “I see the joy of the kids. They ware flying on the ground. It is liberation. We all need to see this to believe it is possible, and that we have champions among us.”
Although there are many sports clubs in Saudi Arabia, most facilities remain inaccessible. There is also a lack of transportation, coaches, and training knowledge for people with disabilities. Without official statistics available, he estimates there are roughly 500,000 to one million Saudis with disabilities. For those who live in small towns are rural areas, there is almost no access to sports
“These are big challenges to overcome if you are disabled and want to play sports,” Ahmad says. “It may seem hard to believe, but people with disabilities are caged in their homes—this is the unfortunate reality. Lack of education, money, facilities, and social stereotypes keeps them down. You cannot be a quitter if you have a disability and want to play sports.”
In the last decade, there have been positive signs with the notable growth of Saudi Paralympics, sparked on by four medals in the past three Games—the first four in the country’s history. The government has started providing money and coaching for participation in domestic and international tournaments. Ahmad wants to use his digital skills, and increasing accessibility features in I.T., to promote movement campaigns and Paralympic activities on the internet.
In order for Ahmad to be successful on his mission, he wanted to learn more about marketing from a Paralympic perspective, fundraising, and developing government policies that support sports activities for the disabled community. For his mentorship, he was be based at the National Ability Center, a prominent U.S. Paralympic sports club with comprehensive adaptive sports programs focused on inclusion and therapeutic recreation. At the NAC, Ahmad worked with two of the organization’s key leaders, Gail Loveland, CEO, and Tracy Meier, program and education director. Collectively, both have served for more than two decades with the NAC, providing more than 30,000 annual sports experiences for community members, and working with a range of local and national sponsors, as well as more than 1,000 volunteers. His mentors experience, coupled with the organization’s emphasis on inclusion, grassroots engagement, and elite training, provided Ahmad with a vital resource base where he was able pull information for broadening the impact of Paralympic sports across Saudi Arabia.