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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Olympics are Salfa's stepping stone

The Dubai teenager is looking to build on his experience in China as he continues his switch from the football pitch to athletics.
Asafa Powel had held the 100m world record. He will be one of the main athletes to beat in Beijing.
Asafa Powel had held the 100m world record. He will be one of the main athletes to beat in Beijing.

The Dubai teenager is looking to build on his experience in China as he continues his switch from the school football pitch to the athletics track. Ahmed Rizvi reports. Four years ago, the Olympics were just a pipe dream for Omar Juma al Salfa. As Sheikh Ahmed bin Hashar was making history at Athens with the first ever Olympics gold medal for the UAE, the then 14-year-old Salfa was taking his first steps on the tracks.

Football was still his first love and there was nothing to suggest he would be making the trip to Beijing in 2008 as the UAE's lone representative in track and field. "I loved football and I used to dream about playing for one of the top clubs and the national side," says Salfa. "I had no idea that I would one day represent my country at the Olympics as an athlete. "My sports teacher at school thought I had a lot of potential as a sprinter and he encouraged me to take to the tracks. I followed his advice and I am glad I did that."

Within three years of switching to the sport, Salfa won the 200 metres bronze medal at the fourth Military World Games in India. A year later he won the 200m gold medal at the Asia Youth Championship in Jakarta. A few days after that he won the 100m and 200m double at the Arab Youth Championships in Tunisia. He also took part in the IAAF World Youth Championships and reached the final round of the 200m, finishing seventh with a time of 21.10 secs. Christophe Lemaître of France won the gold in 20.83.

"I was expecting him to do better [at the World Youth Championships]," says Ahmed al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletics Federation. "But you know, he is just an 18-year-old and was competing in the World Juniors for the first time. "Sometimes, it gets a bit difficult when you find yourself surrounded by the Americans, Jamaicans and Germans on the track. I have been an athlete and I know how it feels."

Vasko Anguelov Dimov, Salfa's Bulgarian coach, also believes finishing seventh was a positive result. "Finishing seventh is not bad," says Vasko, who has just returned to the UAE after training for six weeks in Poland with Salfa. "It means he is in the top 10 in the world. "He is new at this level and getting used to things. Competing against the Americans and Jamaicans is not easy, and the atmosphere can be overwhelming. But he is starting to enjoy it now and gaining in confidence."

The trip to Beijing is also part of Salfa's grooming process - there is no pressure on him to win medals. "He is very young and athletes take time to peak," explains Vasko. "He is going to the Olympics to prepare for the future, to soak up the atmosphere and to get used to competing at that level. "He is a very promising talent. I am sure by the time the 2012 Olympics come around, he will be competing for medals.

"We are handling him with a lot of care, it is going to be a long process and we need to be patient. We need to give him all the support he needs. "He is working really hard and hopefully he will do well in Beijing. In sports, you can never predict, so it would be premature to talk about winning medals." Ibrahim Abdulmalik, the general secretary of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) and general secretary of the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare (GAYSW), agrees with Vasko.

"Omar is a young boy and he is taking part in the glamour event of the Olympics," says Abdulmalik. "It is the toughest competition in the Games. The 100m, 200m and the 400m are the biggest events at the Olympics. "I hope he will reach the final round. I believe if he reaches the final round, it will be a very good result and a great moment for all of us. Omar has a very bright future ahead of him. We are preparing him for the next Olympic Games."

Kamali also has similarly high expectations for Salfa. "We have really high hopes for him," says Kamali. "He is improving really fast and the target for him is the 2012 Olympics. "By then, I hope we will have around four to six very good athletes representing the UAE." Salfa too is realistic about his chances in Beijing. "The world's best sprinters will be there and I hope I will learn from the experience, and return a better sprinter," says Salfa, who hopes to get a scholarship at an American university to further his athletics career after returning from Bejing.

"If I can reach the second or third round [semi-finals], I think I would have done well. I can promise one thing though - I will improve on my personal best timings." But when the 2012 London Olympics come around, Omar promises to be running for the medals. "If all goes well, I will be at my peak in four years," he says. "We will be talking about medals then." @Email:arizvi@thenational.ae