x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A flying start to life in the fast lane for sprinter Waahid Ally

Schoolboy Waahid Ally is threatening to become a major 100m sprinter – though he prefers football to athletics.

At 16, Waahid Ally clocked a time of 10.72 seconds without starting blocks or any previous experience.
At 16, Waahid Ally clocked a time of 10.72 seconds without starting blocks or any previous experience.

It's Saturday night fever as American Academy hosts race night

It seemed an unlikely setting for a sporting revelation.

Barely a mile down the road, Tiger Woods, one of the world's most recognisable sportsman, had just seen his campaign to break his winless streak blown off course by the winds eddying around the Majlis golf course.

The same stiff breeze which was causing havoc for the professional golfers was blowing straight into the faces of the small group of young athletes lining up for a 100m race at the Dubai American Academy.

They looked a motley bunch as they limbered up in the gloaming on the modestly floodlit track. Then the starter's gun clapped and Waahid Ally, a 16-year-old schoolboy, was across the finish line in 11 seconds exactly, despite having the wind against him. It was the slowest recorded time he had run to date.

Ally had only taken part in his first organised 100m race - other than his sportsday at Emirates International School (EIS) Jumeirah - three weeks previously. He had no starting blocks and no previous experience, yet stopped the hand-timed clock in 10.72 seconds.

Some context: had he been competing in his age-group, the Under 17 category, at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Junior Championships, rather than his maiden race, he would have won by .08 seconds.

"My dad was telling me that was the case because someone had emailed to tell him," Ally, who was born in Durban, South Africa, said when asked if he was aware his time was faster than that which won the world junior title.

Hand-held times are not considered as accurate as the electronic timing used at big international meets, but even so, his time was impressive, given his lack of experience.

"I haven't really practised for it, I just did it because I am fast, which is something I got from football. My teacher was an athlete who was very fast when he was my age, and he said I should go along and give it a try."

If Ally seems gloriously oblivious of his potential, it could be down to two reasons. First, he is "unassuming and not boastful," according to Stephen Munnery, the EIS teacher who suggested he give sprinting a go, who added, "he just seems to be used to excelling".

And secondly, he has an all-consuming passion for football. Just as Usain Bolt had to be persuaded his future prospects were probably brighter on the track than they were in his first love - cricket - so Ally has choices, too.

The reason his athletics prowess had been so well hidden was because of his affection for football. He trains on a non-contract basis with the junior ranks of the UAE Pro League side, Al Wasl.

He hopes to get a professional deal there when he reaches the Under 18 level, if he has not been snapped up by a foreign club already.

"I wouldn't mind entering into athletics and making it into a profession or doing it later on [but] I don't know where they do any professional training here," said Ally, who moved to Dubai with his family when he was six.

"It is not that athletics hadn't interested me, it was just that I hadn't been exposed to anything like that here.

"We have had a school competition for two years in a row now. I have been running the 100m and the 400m, and broken both the records, so it is not much of a challenge. There are not that many fast runners for me to compete with and use my speed against."

Last year, Ally broke his school's records for the 100m and 400m senior age group (17 and 18-year-olds) while aged 15. The records had stood for around 15 years.

"It was no surprise to me or any of the other teachers in the school that he was running so well, but the times he is running are phenomenal," Munnery, the EIS physical education master, said.

"I think if he wanted to pursue athletics, he is certainly world class. Potentially he could go a long way in the sport if he were to choose to commit as an athlete and train like an athlete."

As a former beach-sprinter during his time as a surf lifesaver in his native Australia, Munnery is well qualified to assess Ally's prospects, and his views are echoed by the founders of Dubai's first regular open athletics race night.

"I was just amazed by his talent," Lisa Campbell, a former age-group sprinter for Great Britain and one of the co-founder's of Dubai Race Night, said.

"He is not the biggest guy, he is quite slim, which shocked me even more. Usually sprinters are well built, whereas he is quite slight.

"He has a quick stride, and because he is so light he is very quick on his feet. He looks like a natural."

Campbell set up the Race Night, along with Rob Turner, the former Great Britain representative middle distance runner, in order to give keen expatriate athletes a platform to compete for the first time in Dubai.

She had been hoping they might discover some talent, but none quite as raw as Ally.

"I hoped there would be, but I didn't think they would not be an ex-athlete," she added.

"I thought there might be someone who used to run in the UK or the States who used to run, then came here and wanted to get back into it. To have not done athletics before and to have been that quick is just incredible."

pradley@thenational.ae