DUBAI // The 250 international athletes arriving at the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex to compete in the Asian Swimming Championships, which start today, will all likely ask themselves the same question: is it a mirage?
The UAE's premier aquatics centre is as isolated as it is impressive; a shining, immaculate, mirrored building surrounded by nothingness and lost amid the desert sands. It is as quintessential an oasis as has ever been seen in the Emirates and it is here where it is hoped history will be made.
For the next 11 days and for the first time in the 32 years this quadrennial Asian showcase has been organised, athletes from across 30 countries will compete in four sports - swimming, water polo, synchronised swimming and diving - under the umbrella of a singular championship.
"It is not unique for Dubai to host events of this level, but it is unique for an event to include four separate Asian championships and this will hopefully help these sports grow in the region," said Abdullah Mubarak of the UAE Swimming Federation.
This year's showcase also marks the first time the event has been held in West Asia, a detail Taha Al Kishry, the director general of the Asian Swimming Federation (AASF), calls "crucial" to the development of the sport in this region.
Of the 38 swimming records that can be broken this week, 37 are held by athletes from China and Japan - the 200m freestyle is held by Park Tae-hwan of South Korea.
No records are held by athletes from West Asia. Al Kishry, an Omani, says his ambition is to change such statistics.
"West Asia is really too far behind. There is no way of comparing China, Japan and South Korea with the rest of the continent," said Al Kishry, adding he believes East Asia to be "more than five years" ahead in terms of development.
"Most of the national aquatic federations here, though, are working hard to improve and now with the championships being hosted in this region, the level will go up," he said.
"We hope to see new Asian records and new Asian swimmers coming to the stage during this championship."
Al Kishry is fully confident this week's meeting will surpass the achievements of previous AASF events and he also expects swimmers from West Asia - particularly Kuwait - to take medals.
"In diving too, we will see some new records being set and I hope we will break some Olympic records here in Dubai, too," he said.
The venue may be relatively new having only opened in 2010, but it already has a solid reputation.
Dubai won the right to host this year's championships two years ago while successfully hosting the Short Course Worlds; an event remembered for Ryan Lochte becoming the first swimmer to win seven medals - six golds and one silver - at that annual meeting.
The American also became the first person to break a world record since the ban on body-length swim suits.
This week's highest profile athlete is Sun Yang, a 20-year-old Chinese swimmer who took two gold medals at the London Olympics. He will compete in 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle.
"We've just finished the Olympic Games and we're in a period of adjustment," Sun said.
"We've just come back to training and this is the first international competition back for me, so I'm not sure I can reach a very high performance level. But, I'll try to give my best performance and get the best result."
And of the oasis in the desert, Sun paid the ultimate compliment. "This facility is the very best," he said. "It's even better than the Olympic Games Aquatics Centre."
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