DOHA // A diminutive Qatari teenager will carry the hopes of her nation and the wider Gulf region when she takes part in the London Olympics this summer.
Noor Al Malki, a sprinter, is just 17 years old but will end a 28-year absence of Qatari female athletes at the Olympics when she competes, along with the swimmer Nada Arkaji, in the Summer Games.
"I want to try to break my personal best of 12.73 seconds, which I set last year, and give a good performance," said the Doha-born Al Malki, who weighs just 44kg and stands 1.55m tall.
"I know I am not capable of sparkling performances in London. First, I want to become an Arab champion in my favourite event, the 100m, and then to see myself winning Asian and then international competitions."
Given Qatar's high-profile push to host sports events and develop both home-grown and expatriate talent, women were notable by their absence in international athletics.
It had been suggested by analysts that Doha's bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics would be harmed if the country did not send female athletes to the London Games.
Abdullah Al Zaini, president of the Qatar Athletics Federation, said change is afoot.
"Choosing women to represent Qatar at the Olympics is a choice supported by the Qatar Athletics Federation because women are very important in sport," Al Zaini said ahead of the opening Diamond League meet here on Friday.
"She will take part in the Olympics not to win, because she is very inexperienced, but to prove to the world that Qatar is on the right path for female athletes as well as male athletes. Noor is one of the first fruits of our women's athletics training centre."
Al Malki, the youngest of six brothers and five sisters said she enjoys unbridled support from her football-mad family.
She has not set her bar too high for the London Games, though.
"I was surprised and excited by the call-up for the Olympics," she said, dressed in a purple Qatar team tracksuit, a black bandana decorated with white cross-bones highlighting four pearl earrings and a braces-filled mouth.
"I feel very happy to be given the chance to represent my country in London. I know it is a heavy burden but I promise I will try at least to improve my personal best."
Al Malki trains with the Tunisian Naima ben Amara, a former international middle-distance runner, along with 70 other girls at an Emiri Guard running track, albeit segregated from their male counterparts.
"We have to set a realistic target," said ben Amara. "We're still far away from the top level. Noor's goal is not a medal or something equivalent.
"We want her to improve her personal best and show the world a good picture of Qatar."
Ben Amara added: "Noor's participation at the Olympics will motivate athletes of her age and similar level. It will encourage other girls to take sports seriously."
Al Malki, who lists Qatar's Nigeria-born world men's 400m finalist Femi Ogunode, as her favourite athlete, said she hoped she could become an inspiration for other Qatari girls entering athletics.
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