Mulalo Mufamadi never thought he'd love Austria so much. Before this week, he'd never been out of South Africa. But for the last several days, the 21-year-old floor hockey player has gotten to know Austrian culture, cuisine and history. "Everything is great about Austria! Like the food. We went to the Cathedral’s museum about Austria. I love Austria!”
It's all part of the Host Town program -- and this year has been the biggest World Winter Games Host Town ever. Thousands of people in towns and cities all around Austria welcomed and hosted nearly 2,700 athletes from more than 100 countries. Host Town gives athletes the best possible way to adjust to a new time zone, new types of foods, new language and new climate ahead of World Games competition. Most importantly, Host Town brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities on a new, often more personal, level.
Many athletes admit to being a bit nervous coming to a new country, traveling far from home, often for the first time. Austria's Host Towns made sure everyone felt welcome -- immediately!!
Athletes from Qatar were greeted at the airport by their hosts, who were holding giant hearts. Athletes from Ukraine enjoyed Austrian delicacies and quickly made new friends playing Unified basketball with local Rotary members. Athletes from USA toured a medieval castle AND a chocolate factory. Athletes from every delegation were treated to parties, tours and fellowship.
For athletes from Cuba, it was a major adjustment simply to experience cold weather. This was a concern for members of their Host Town in northern Austria, near the Czech border. So their hosts bought them warm clothes -- winter jackets, hats and gloves.
That kind of generosity doesn't surprise Ricarda Huber, head of the Host Town program. She and her team worked over the last two years to make sure athletes were welcomed into the hearts of Austria in the best possible way.
"The most incredible thing to me is how everybody wanted to help. It didn't matter what age, religion, skin color," said Huber. "And I was never asked who would pay for that, how do you expect us to do that? Everyone just wanted to help."
Athletes have now moved on to the athlete villages near their sports venues, where they'll stay throughout the World Games competition. But they will always have these memories of their adopted "home towns." And so will Austria.