x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dynamic duo face best in world

There is little chance that either of the UAE's competitors at this month's World Athletics Championships will return home with anything other than the experience of sharing a track with the very best the sport has to offer.

The UAE's Omar Juma al Salfa, left, races Nigeria's Obinna Metu and the Bahamas' Jamaal Rolle in a 200m heat at the Beijing Olympics.
The UAE's Omar Juma al Salfa, left, races Nigeria's Obinna Metu and the Bahamas' Jamaal Rolle in a 200m heat at the Beijing Olympics.

DUBAI // There is little chance that either of the UAE's competitors at this month's World Athletics Championships will return home with anything other than the experience of sharing a track with the very best the sport has to offer. In events likely to be dominated by Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Bershawn Jackson and LJ Van Zyl, the two local athletes - Ali Obaid Shirook and Omar Juma al Salfa - are at best expected to make only the second round.

However, Ahmed al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletics Federation, says the fact they are the first to ever qualify for the championships on merit shows the progress that is being made. And with two important regional events to follow soon after, he is very hopeful that medals will be won by the end of the year. At the world championships, held at Berlin's Olympic Stadium from August 15-23, Shirook will be up against the USA's 2005 world champion Jackson and South African star Van Zyl in the 400m hurdles. Al Salfa, meanwhile faces mission impossible against the superstar sprinting trio of Bolt, Powell and Gay in the 200m.

"We are actually looking ahead to October and November," said al Kamali. "From October 4-7, we have the Arab Athletics Championship in Syria. From October 11-17, we have the Islamic Games in Iran. "The Asian Indoor Games follow in Hanoi from October 28 to November 2 and then we have the Asian Athletics Championships in Guangzhou, China, from November 8-14. "We are hoping to win a couple of medals in each of these events, some of them gold, of course."

Shirook, 29, qualified for the World Championships with a 49.66 second run in the 400m hurdles at the 12th GCC Championships in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, earlier this year. He won the gold, set a national record and earned a ticket to Berlin. LJ Van Zyl clocked 47.94, the year's best, on his way to winning the event at the Monaco Super Grand Prix last month. Al Kamali is confident Shirook can move a bit closer to that time in Berlin as the Class 1 Warrant Officer with Dubai Police has been training hard in Stockholm, Sweden, since June 6.

"Ali will leave Sweden for Berlin on August 14 and will take to the tracks next day in the third heat of the 400m hurdles," said al Kamali. "We are hoping he will reach the next round at least. He was been training well and has shown good times. Both Ali and his coach are confident of doing well. "We have sent his wife and two children along with him to Sweden. This is not something very common in the UAE, but we wanted to give him every support possible and keep his morale high."

Al Salfa is one of the brightest prospects in the country, winning the 200m gold at the Asian Junior Championships in Jakarta last year. The 19-year-old, who is training in Bulgaria for the Worlds, has been steadily improving his time, and qualified for Berlin by winning the 200m at the Qatif GCC Championships in 20.72 seconds, a national record. "He is the fastest man in the GCC and Arab world," said al Kamali. "He won the 100m and 200m double at the GCC Championships, and also the 200m gold at the Arab Games. He also got the bronze at the World Season Games [for the military].

"He comes from a family of athletes. His father, Juma Bilal, is a former 100m national record holder and his brother is part of the UAE 4x100m relay team. "At the moment, he is the best athlete in the country. We are sure he will reach the second round, but we are hoping for a bit more from him. His opening heat is on August 15, but we are hoping he will stay on until the final." arizvi@thenatonal.ae