x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Three young UAE athletes on the cost of a dream

The financial and social cost of embarking on a top-flight sporting career can be staggering. Three young athletes and their families reveal the sacrifices they make in pursuit of future fame.

Haytham Sultan's ultimate goal is to make it to Formula One, although he says his aim is not for financial gain.
Haytham Sultan's ultimate goal is to make it to Formula One, although he says his aim is not for financial gain.

Ask Haytham Sultan, an aspiring Formula One driver, how often he sees his friends and he will say with resignation "only at the track". Or Fatma Janahi can tell you how she only gets to spend quality time with her parents and siblings about once a week, the one day she is not practising her tennis. And Daniel Hendry, one of the UAE's top golfers, studies straight through lunch because he has so little time after school not spent on the links.

The dream of stardom burns bright for these young athletes, and each has already experienced the sweet taste of success. But the cost of that dream is enormous. As children, which is when they all embarked on this quest, their pursuit of a distant reward came at the expense of many of the lighthearted afternoons and social outings that their peers enjoyed. For their parents, the sacrifice is more tangible. The cost of equipment, coaching, hotel rooms and airline tickets adds up and can be quite a financial burden in even the most supportive of families.

"For me, it is not easy. It is very expensive," says Abbas Janahi, Fatma's father, who travels with her to tournaments around the world. Mr Janahi, a bank manager in Dubai, declines to specify how much he has spent on his daughter's athletic pursuit but says it is "many thousands". He gets some financial support from the Dubai Sports Council, but it does not come close to matching his expenses. In a sense, each of these young athletes is confronted with what the author Malcolm Gladwell dubbed "The 10,000-Hour Rule". This means that to gain true expertise in a field a person must devote at least 10,000 hours to it, or roughly three hours every day for a decade.

But as they put in their time, the athletes are also proving another of Gladwell's points from his best-selling book Outliers about high-achievers: "No one - not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires and not even geniuses - ever makes it alone." Of course, few families can afford to match Texas billionaire Kenny Troutt, who built a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) gym for his sons' basketball teams and flies them around the US in a private jet, but any athlete who reaches the top ranks essentially represents the return on a sizable financial investment.

Haytham, now 20 years old and working as an Abu Dhabi police officer, may need the most support, as he is immersed in one of the most expensive sports in the world. The average cost for a young teenager to steer from the karting scene all the way to Formula One: $10m. In the early stages, that cost is borne by the budding driver. As he makes his way up the ranks, he can attract sponsors who can help cover many of the larger expenses. That is where Haytham stands now, trying to find a sponsor. He has already competed in two 24-hour endurance events and placed in the top-three in several kart races in Dubai.

This autumn, he plans to compete in the Formula Gulf 1000 Championship, the first single-seat racing series in the Gulf. Haytham, who is originally from Umm al Qaiwain, comes in with at least one advantage - he started young. "It is no good turning up at [age] 25 and saying, 'I want to be a Formula One driver'," says Barry Hope, the sales and race director of GulfSport Racing in Dubai. "To get to Formula One is like getting two masters degrees and a PhD. It is 10 years of hard work."

Haytham started driving go-karts at the age of eight, with the cautious support of his parents. "At the beginning, they were very scared. On the way to the racetrack, my mother would say, 'Don't drive too fast'," he says. Haytham now spends up to 40 hours each week training, either cycling through the hills around Fujeirah to stay physically fit or actually driving at the track. Already the cost is significant. The basic training package he bought for this year was Dh309,000, which includes the fees for mechanics and other support staff, the use of a car, and entry fees for 16 races. If he reaches the GP2 level, considered the main feeder to Formula One, the annual cost will top $1m. "If you want to reach the top, you have to be prepared to make both the time commitment and the financial investment," Haytham says.

It helps that his employer is also supportive, allowing him paid time off to race because he is representing the UAE, but Haytham says he spends thousands of his own dollars each year on additional expenses. The ultimate goal is to make it to Formula One, but personal gain is not his primary motivation. "The first thing is to make my country proud. The second thing is to be the first Arabic Formula One driver," he says. "It is not an aim to get money."

Fatma, the top junior female tennis player in the UAE, feels the same way. She does not even want to turn professional (she wants to be an interior designer some day), but she does have ambition. Fatma, 16, has played competitively since age nine, having been introduced to the game by her two older brothers. Born and raised in Dubai, she has played tournaments in more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Malaysia, Holland and Jordan.

But the tennis scene in this country is in its infancy - it is the only country in the GCC without a national tennis centre - and promising young players like Fatma are at times at a disadvantage to players from other countries. When she travels to tournaments, she is sometimes the only player without a private coach and fitness trainer, each of which would cost hundreds of dollars a day, before adding in airfare and hotel costs.

There are steps under way to bolster the support for local players. Tennis Emirates, the sport's national governing body, is expanding its development programme. This year, 11 institutions applied to be a part of it, up from three last year. The goal is to have at least 20 tournaments each year at every age level, and Tennis Emirates says it expects to have more than 1,000 youngsters signed up by the end of the year.

Fatma hopes to qualify for the Dubai Open and maybe even the Olympics someday, not only to represent her country but also to serve as a role model for other girls. "I'm hoping a lot of other girls will get with it, not just tennis but other sports. I think more girls need to get into competition," she says. Mr Janahi says she has already accomplished plenty, even if she may not gain the acclaim of Russian star Maria Sharapova. "I told her, 'You are the Sharapova of this country'." As he spoke, his youngest son, Fahad, 12, rocketed forehand returns to a player twice his age - the next generation already on the rise.

Far away, in northern England, Glynis Hendry perhaps put it best. "When you start a hobby, you don't think of [the sacrifice]. But you get a bit swept away," she says. Her son, Daniel, is one ofthe UAE's top junior golfers and the family spends its summers in the UK so he can play in tournaments there against some of the top competition in the world. "I think this summer my mother has already driven me up to Scotland three or four times, five or six hours each way," Daniel says, adding that his parents "fully support what I want to do".

But golf is among the more expensive sports for junior players. His parents, also golfers, belong to Emirates Golf Club, where a family membership is Dh35,000 a year, plus a Dh20,000 joining fee. A top-flight set of clubs can be as much as Dh5,000 and even a dozen golf balls now costs more than Dh200. The time investment is beginning to pay dividends. Daniel has been contacted about potential scholarships at some of the top golfing universities in the US, which could translate into an education valued at more than Dh300,000. Only 16, he intends to play in the UAE's Order of Merit this year against the top men's players in the country, rather than remain in the junior division he dominated last year.

A Dubai resident for the past eight years, he works closely with Mark Gregson-Walters, a coach who also tutors several European PGA players. Daniel says he is the envy of his friends back home, as he gets to play through the winter in the UAE and then return home in time for the season in the UK. "I get the best of both worlds," he says. Daniel's father, Andrew, is an oil executive and Glynis says the family is "fortunate that we can afford" the considerable costs of equipment and travel that comes with top-flight junior golf.

This summer Andrew is playing for the Scottish national team and he recently sank the winning putt that allowed the squad to defeat England for the first time in 15 years. "I think I've been very lucky," he says.

breagan@thenational.ae