x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Athletic talent needs to be nurtured among UAE women

A four-time Olympics heptathlete is leading a long-term plan to raise the standard.

Alia Saeed Mohammed missed out on qualification for the Olympics, but athletics in growing in the UAE.
Alia Saeed Mohammed missed out on qualification for the Olympics, but athletics in growing in the UAE.

When it comes to inspiring a generation, you do not necessarily need a £9.3 billion (Dh53bn) war chest, as well as a willing public. But it probably helps.

Bethlem Desaleyn will not have quite such ready resources to hand when she become the UAE's first female track Olympian as she takes to the start line of today's 1,500 metres heats. All she really has are her running spikes and a flag of convenience.

Desaleyn has a stated aim of inspiring female Emiratis to take up running. It is a noble sentiment, given that she has prospered entirely independently of the athletics system in the UAE.

She was born and brought up in Ethiopia, trains there to get the benefits of running at altitude, and her infrequent trips to the UAE are usually fleeting.

In the week before the Olympics started, she did not want to spend any more than a day in Dubai, because of the effect the summer heat might have had on her training schedule.

It is fair to say Desaleyn would not be where she is today - she is competing as an outright qualifier, having attained the B standard time earlier this year - had she grown up in the UAE.

The infrastructure for track and field is poor. Among females, it has been more or less non-existent. However, there are signs that the winds of change are starting to whistle through the sport.

According to Ahmed Al Kamali, the former Al Wasl marathon runner who is the president of the UAE Athletics Federation, the building blocks are now in place to promote athletics among female Emiratis.

"We are trying to build a team and it is a long process," said Al Kamali, who has been the president of the governing body since June 2008.

"The coaches are ladies, the team manager is a lady long jumper. Everything is lady, lady, lady."

One notable sign of progress arrived in April, when Svetla Dimitrova, a former Bulgarian heptathlete who appeared at four Olympics between 1988 and 2000, arrived to head up the new coaching programme for junior female athletes.

The 42 year old has a team of 20 promising girls, all aged between 14 and 16, under her charge on a daily basis in Dubai. The plan is a long one.

"Hopefully we can raise the standard ahead of the next Olympics in four years' time in Rio de Janeiro," said Dimitrova, who finished fifth in the heptathlon at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

"Since I arrived I have seen there is plenty of talent - but it needs to be nurtured. There needs to be more training, every day, step by step. Maybe if that happens there can be a gradual improvement."

One of the girls benefiting from Dimitrova's guidance is Alia Naser, a 15-year-old long jump and high jump specialist.

The Al Sufouh School girl was born in Dubai to an Emirati father and an English mother. She believes the Olympic Games, and the athletics events in particular, mean more to the expatriate community in the UAE than Emiratis, but feels development programmes like the one she is in are already starting to help aspiring athletes like her.

"We see each other every day now in the mornings and the evenings," she said.

"I never thought seriously about it until I joined the UAE federation team.

"Now it is really nice because we look forward to competitions. I don't think it is as big [within the Arabic community] as the English-speaking one, but as an athletics team we have been really looking forward to the Olympics."

According to Larry Barthlow, the mentor and former coach of the UAE national team's two Ethiopia-born distance runners, Desaleyn and Alia Saeed Mohammed, much still needs to be done to develop the sport.

The former marathon runner, who serves in an advisory capacity to the governing body for athletics, insists the moves being taken to mobilise females and schoolchildren in athletics are long overdue.

"Athletics must be in the schools as a post-school programme, with leagues and meets set up among all the schools," said Barthlow, who also advocates more competition between Emirati clubs and expatriate athletes.

Al Kamali, who will seek reelection as the president of the federation later this summer, says the benefits of the development programme for female athletes which have been introduced are already starting to bear fruit.

"We have brought the girls together," Al Kamali said. "They are happy to be with each other discussing athletics, and we are giving them the programmes for all the Olympic events, so they can build and aspire to them.

"Some of them are very good, we have a 14-year-old girl who is already doing five metres 20 centimetres in the long jump. That is very good.

"We have a girl who throws the hammer. Normally you don't see that in this part of the world. Our girls are enjoying it and feel they can do something now."

UAE'S OTHER FEMALE OLYMPIANS

Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed Al Maktoum
Taekwondo, Beijing 2008
Carried the flag at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics before making her debut appearance in the taekwondo competition. Her influence has been felt beyond the confines of her sport. The embryonic UAE weightlifting team borrowed space in her gyms as they put the building blocks in place for their London 2012 qualification.

Sheikha Latifa bint Ahmed Al Maktoum
Equestrian, Beijing 2008
The second female member of the Olympic squad that travelled to China four years ago was the showjumping Royal from Dubai. Two years later she enjoyed a highly successful Asian Games, during which she and her younger brother Sheikh Rashid claimed a silver for the UAE in the showjumping team event.

Khadija Mohammed
Weightlifting, London 2012
The 17 year old became the first Emirati weightlifting Olympian last week, when she competed in the 75kg category. She was selected as the one UAE representative in the competition, after the female national team won a place at the Games via their performance in the Asian Championships.

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