ANCHORAGE - Isa Ahmed is not quite sold on the idea of eating turkey.
Asked how he likes the box lunches at the 2001 Special Olympics World Winter Games Alaska, the 16-year-old floor hockey player carefully chose 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 and turkey's unheard of, said 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.
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 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 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. But visa or financial problems prevented athletes from Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Palestine from attending. That left athletes from Bahrain and Mauritania joining the team from Jordan.
Isa, who's training to be a carpenter, has never seen ice hockey, except on television.
"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."
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.