DUBAI // For the first 10 years of his life, Mohammed Khamis Khalaf was hidden from the world, his family afraid that leg paralysis caused by polio would provoke verbal and even physical abuse by a society they feared was not ready to accept him.
But three decades later, as the 41-year-old powerlifter trains for his fourth Paralympics, the Dubai Special Sports Club is filled with children and young adults with disabilities who have been inspired by his achievements. "Before, families like Mohammed's were very shy to show they had handicapped children," said Titou Kacem, who has been Khalaf's friend and coach for more than a decade. "But now they see what is possible. Now everybody sends their sons and daughters to the club, because they don't know if they also have a champion like him in their home."
After making his debut at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, Khalaf became the first Emirati to win a gold medal, in the 82.5kg class at the Athens games four years later. In 2008, despite an elbow injury, he took silver in Beijing, and in October last year took gold at the IPC Powerlifting Open Asian Championships, setting a record in the process. A fortnight ago, the father-of-four returned to the UAE after undergoing surgery in Europe for tennis elbow.
After collecting a Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Creative Sports Award for his success so far, he returned to the state-of-the-art sporting facility in Al Qusais to begin training for the 2010 IPC Powerlifting World Championships, which will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in July. "I feel good," he said, during a recent workout. "No pain, no gain." His coach, originally from Morocco, is proud of everything his star student has achieved.
"He has respect for people, for the sport and for his family, and he also works very hard in his training," he said. As a child, Khalaf was not confident that a bright future lay before him. He was born in Qatar, and his polio was diagnosed when he was 18 months old. At the time, proper care for those with a disability was scarce and expensive. "I got by with the help of my family," he said. "They used to carry me from place to place, and when I got too big they bought a small three-wheel bicycle and adapted it so that they could push me around. Wheelchairs were hard to find and very expensive."
He said his parents were "shy" about his condition and anxious that he would be vulnerable to bullies at school, so they kept him at home, where his elder sister tried to educate him. "She would tell me to watch what she was saying and the letters she wrote down." In 1980, when he was 10, the family moved to Abu Dhabi, and Khalaf began attending a rehabilitation centre in the capital, which provided education from grades one to six.
"I was wild," he said. "Initially I could not communicate well because I was not used to interacting. After I met with people I became better behaved, and by the time I finished and graduated sixth grade I was more confident." Newly optimistic about his future, Khalaf was accepted at a mainstream government school in Abu Dhabi. After school he found a job but it neither challenged nor inspired him, so he returned to studying, attending a technical college in the capital.
While in college he saw members of the Dubai Special Sports Club participating in marathons and other sports events in the capital. "My colleagues tried to convince me to go to Dubai to join them," he said. "I refused many times. I did not feel confident enough. But when my uncle moved to Dubai in 1991, I decided to join him." Under the guidance of Kacem, he began track and field training a year later. Initially hesitant about powerlifting, Khalaf overcame his doubts and has never looked back.
In 1998 the World Powerlifting Championship was held in Dubai and Khalaf finished ninth out of 24 participants in his weight division. "I was quite far behind, but I knew then that I could do better," he said. In 2003, after winning a gold medal at the Europe Open Championship in Slovakia, Khalaf was awarded a villa in Al Barsha by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance and Industry. Today, Khalaf shares that villa with his wife and children, juggling family commitments with a busy training schedule and a full-time job as an administrator at Dubai Courts.
He said facilities for athletes with disabilities have improved dramatically since he began in 1992, with growing support from the Government. "When I began we only had one bench for powerlifting and we used to fight among each other for use of it. Now we have a large room full of machines and all of the weights that we need. "I have been to many places around the world and if our club is not the best in the world then I feel confident to say it is one of the best."
The stigma he experienced growing up is disappearing, he said. In November 2006, the UAE Disability Act, Federal Law 29, enshrined the rights of people with special needs to equal access to all public sectors including education, sport and employment. "Many other parents and families now encourage their children to participate in sports because they notice how proud the community is of us and what we are achieving," Khalaf said. "Attitudes are slowly changing, but it will take time."