x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Olympics: Emiratis get set but not quite a go yet

Shooting comes a distant second in a football-crazy nation, but Paul Radley finds ample reason to believe there is a concerted effort to overhaul athletics from the grass roots levels.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Feb 12 : One of the girl taking part in the trials of 400 meter race for the UAE Olympic women ´ s national team at the Police Stadium in Garhoud area in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports. Story by Ahmed
DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Feb 12 : One of the girl taking part in the trials of 400 meter race for the UAE Olympic women ´ s national team at the Police Stadium in Garhoud area in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports. Story by Ahmed

There is a very distinct order of preference within UAE sport. It goes as follows:

No 1: football.

No 2: broad sweep of daylight.

No 3: everything else.

Which is all well and good, until you assess the maths. At the Olympic Games, there are three medals open to men's football. In weightlifting alone, there are more than 40.

The numbers serve to suggest the country is limiting its options for Olympic recognition if all its hopes are invested in Mahdi Ali's promising band of footballers.

It is the National Olympic Committee's job to entice the rest to try to become the best. They are rightly proud of having more athletes than ever before competing in London 2012.

But how much credit can they claim for it?

Shooting is by far the most successful Olympic sport in the UAE, and not solely because it provided the one medal - Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum's gold in Athens - to date.

For the first time, there are three Emirati qualifiers in separate shooting disciplines competing in London 2012. In a sport which requires significant funding for success, it is no coincidence Emiratis, and Royals in particular, excel.

Sheikh Ahmed is on record as saying the country's leading shooters generally succeed independently of the UAE Shooting Association, let alone the NOC.

Other sports often claim the same. It is not unfair to suggest many of the Olympic sports are left gathering the crumbs from under football's table in the UAE.

Each of the lone competitors in swimming and athletics train at Al Wasl club in Dubai, where the facilities for their sports are perfectly adequate, yet are definitely an afterthought to the football pitches.

Since the inauguration of the Pro League, football in the UAE is trying its best to break the cycle of reliance on affluent benefactors. Where, then, will that leave the sports who are so indebted to the clubs?

A master plan for athletics

For most casual watchers, the Olympics only really begin at the start of the second week, when the athletes take to the main stadium for the track and field events.

To date, the UAE has exhibited minimal pedigree in these events, and expectations for the two representatives for London 2012 are humble.

There are faint hopes that Mohammed Abbas Darwish, in the triple jump, and Bethlem Desaleyn, in the women's 1,500 metres, will be able to make their respective finals. To do so, however, they will probably have to far exceed their personal bests.

It remains a minority sport, with less than 2,000 registered athletes across the UAE. However, athletics - perhaps more than any of the UAE's Olympic sports other than weightlifting - can point to a believable development master plan as a reason for optimism.

The overhaul of athletics has already started in earnest, both in terms of the grass roots, as well as bricks and mortar.

"There is no harm in saying that we are a little poor in infrastructure for athletics," said Ahmed Al Kamali, the president of the Athletics Federation and a former marathon runner for Al Wasl.

The sport in UAE is nominally based at the Police Officer's Club Stadium, opposite Wafi in Dubai. However, the facilities there are old, and the track athletes - the distance runners, in particular - regard the track as too firm for regular training.

Three new tracks are planned, however.

One has already been constructed in Al Ain, and in Sharjah, work will soon begin on a 3,000-seat athletics stadium with an eight-lane, IAAF-standard track.

While the facilities are being upgraded, the powers that be are targeting an attitude shift, too.

"Everybody here wants results straightaway, but it is not like going to the shops to buy a new TV," said Svetoslav Topuzov, who has overseen Darwish's triple jump development over the past three years.

The Bulgarian coach has an understated demeanour - highlighted by the fact he never wears shoes - that belies his glittering coaching CV. He knows what is required to create champions, having put Tereza Marinova on top of the podium at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"Arabic guys begin working late," Topuzov said. "In Europe they begin aged 12 or 13, and they start to see the results aged 17 or 18.

"In Arabic countries they start at 18 or 20, and only start to see the results six or eight years down the line, but only if it is serious work."

Darwish is a perfect example. He has rich natural talent, according to his coach, but is unlikely to prove it significantly at this Games as he only turned to triple jumping seriously three years ago. By the time Rio 2016 comes around, his coach says, he could be a genuine force if he sticks with it.

His progress has also been hindered by a lack of any real competition on the domestic scene. For example, he won gold in the season-ending President's Cup at the end of the season from just a five pace run up.

The federation plans to introduce open competitions where the long-established Emirati clubs can compete against athletes from the expatriate community.

They have their eyes on grass roots, too. The governing body offered athletics to 20 schools in the last academic year.

Next year they are planning to do the same in 100 boys schools and 100 girls schools. Particular focus is being paid to the development of female athletes. Svetla Dimitrova, a former heptathlete who finished fifth at the Barcelona Olympics, was brought in to oversee the development of a team of 15 and 16 year old girls.

"Since I have been here I have seen plenty of talent, but it needs to be nurtured," she said.

Al Kamali added: "The main target for us now is to keep these girls together, to help them feel athletics, to help them love athletics." Track and field in the UAE could do with a few role models if it is ever going to compete for the affections of the football-loving public.

And hopefully the drive to promote the sport among women will be boosted by a strong showing by Bethlem Desaleyn, the Ethiopian-born runner who will become the country's first female athletics Olympian when she competes in the 1,500 metres in London. "I want to do my best and hopefully serve as an inspiration to women in the UAE," Desaleyn said.

Rapid climb for lifters

The biggest mover within the UAE Olympic family in the cycle between Beijing and London has undoubtedly been weightlifting. It proves a shoestring budget is not prohibitive of success.

Four years ago, there were no female weightlifters at all in the UAE, yet next week there will be one - Khadija Mohammed, a 17-year-old schoolgirl from Dubai - competing on the biggest stage of all.

Whether she does anything of note at the Games is beside the point: women's weightlifting in the UAE has already triumphed just by having a qualifier.

According to Sultan bin Mejren, the president of the Emirates Weightlifting Federation, they have excelled in spite of the system which created them, rather than because of it.

He estimates that between 95 and 98 per cent of all funding on sport in the UAE goes to football, and his sport is definitely the poor relation.

Weightlifting still does not have a facility of its own. They currently borrow a pokey, windowless room from Al Shabab club in Dubai to do their training.

It is not much to look at, but it is better than the early days. Initially, they had used whatever space schools would grant them, their first facility being a 10m by 5m classroom in Dubai. Yet, three-and-a-half years down the line, they have a competitor bound for the Olympics.

“A lot of sports in UAE spend a lot of money, have a lot of strategy, and great facilities, but didn’t get the chance we did,” Bin Mejren said. “We have limited facilities, didn’t get funds, but got by because of morale, and the unity or the team and federation. That is what earned this achievement.

“This moment is a great opportunity to be in the headlines, and show the sports and Olympic authorities that what we achieved is worth attention. We came from nothing, but we have a great opportunity for tomorrow.”

Emirates Weightlifting’s grand plan was founded on the appointment of Najwan El Zawawi, an Egyptian Olympian lifter, as the national team coach. She discovered some willing recruits from within an otherwise suspecting public. She clearly has a keen eye as a talent spotter. Furthermore, her team adore her.

“When I came here four years ago, everyone told me I won’t be successful because our girls won’t be accepted as weightlifters,” she said. “Nobody believed we could do it.”

Perhaps the most significant sign of development is the fact Mohammed was selected from a choice of six. The federation say they would have been equally confident in sending any of the others.

“Here we are in the Olympic Games. What will happen next?” Bin Mejren said. “This is what the country must understand, the UAE sports authority must understand, the Olympic committee must understand.

“It is not just our women, but our boys are unbelievable athletes. UAE weightlifting will be great in the coming years.”

Rich promise in the pool

Swimming is one Olympic sport which has stood still. The country has regularly had one participant at the Games, yet always on a wild card invitation as opposed to an official qualifier.

This Olympic year has been a mess. On an Arabic-language sports channel earlier this year, Obaid Al Jasmi, the swimmer who went to the last two Olympics, accused the governing body of keeping from him money that was due to him from an NOC grant.
Despite his claims, he continued to make noises about making the Olympic team, even though he knew Mubarak Salem, the breaststroke specialist, was already being measured up for his Games tracksuit.

Despite it all, the sport retains rich promise here. There are fantastic new facilities at many of the leading football clubs, as well as at the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex on Dubai Bypass Road.

And Velimir Stjepanovic, a potential butterfly finalist in London who is exclusively a product of expatriate Dubai, has proved it can be done.

“It’s not out of the possibility that we could have three or four swimmers under the Olympic B cut in four years,” said Jay Benner, the national team coach.

“The important thing to understand is that development takes time and patience. It takes about 10,000 hours of diligent training for someone to reach their potential.

“This involves a lot of hard work and support from our federation, Olympic committee, coaches and athletes. For UAE Swimming to reach the next level, we need to stay the course and be patient for the results.”

pradley@thenational.ae

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