x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Olympics: It is more than simply taking part

Not everyone will have a medal to declare at Heathrow Airport come the end of the Games, but, Paul Radley writes, their accomplishments go much farther than achieving personal glory.

Mohammed Abbas Darwish, the UAE Olympics triple jumper. Sarah Dea/The National)
Mohammed Abbas Darwish, the UAE Olympics triple jumper. Sarah Dea/The National)

As far as anyone knows, Baron de Coubertin, the French educationalist who founded the International Olympic Committee, never had a marketing manager or a team of PR experts.

Yet he still managed to peddle a good line in natty, motivational slogans. Father of the Olympics? He could easily have been the father of management speak mumbo-jumbo, too.

"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part," he is forever quoted as saying. "The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

Ah, how quaint. So really it is not about how extravagant your Oscar-winning film director can make the opening ceremony, after all. Or how quickly it takes to crash the online ticketing system because demand is so great. Or how much financing the official sponsors stump up.

Or even the medals. Surely this is the one aspect of the 21st century Olympic Games which, more than any of the other trappings of modernity, renders De Coubertin's ideal as archaic.

All it needed was one failed Ben Johnson dope test to shine a light on the fact the winning had become the important part of the Olympics, not the taking part.

But how come this global showpiece endures, then? There will be around 17,000 athletes gathering in the English capital this week, and only 302 gold medals to divvy up between them.

The maths do not favour the majority. Most know they are not going to get a sniff of the podium, and yet this could still count as a crowning moment of a lifetime of endeavour.

There is no shame in saying the vast majority of sportsmen heading from the UAE to London for this week's start to the Games fit into this category. The idea of them competing for medals is unrealistic, but merely being there is enough.

Not everyone can be Usain Bolt. But neither has everyone lived by the same socio-economic rules to make it to the start line, or the jumping runway, or the playing field, or the dojo for London 2012.

Tahmina Kohistani will not win an athletics medal for Afghanistan, but to be representing her country is quite some feat. You can be sure the two Saudi Arabian female athletes have had it tough, too.

When Sultan bin Mejren, the president of the Emirates Weightlifting Federation, said last week they had already achieved the equivalent of gold just by having one female qualifier for the Games - Khadija Mohammed - he had a strong point.

"What makes me happy is we started from scratch, from zero," Bin Mejren said of an organisation that did not even exist the last time the Olympics was staged, in Beijing four years ago.

"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."

Despite her relative youth - she is just 17 and still at school - Mohammed has a keen sense of the fact it is not only her country she is representing by competing in the UK.

"I am going to London with the intention of making a statement on behalf of women from the UAE and the Gulf," she said at a press conference last week.

Even those without such obvious barriers to overcome can feel proud just for having the official London 2012 participating athlete's accreditation in their possession.

Humaid Al Derei has been battling an eye condition for the past year and hails from a country with little pedigree in judo. So he is doing well just to compete for the UAE in the 66kg class of the men's judo competition.

"I always hoped I could make the Olympics. Why not? We are the United Arab Emirates, we always look for No 1," said the Abu Dhabi judoka, who finds the idea of being able to say for the rest of his life he was an Olympian "amazing".

"For the Olympic Games, even if you play in it, it is a big result. I will try with all my power, and I believe Allah will be with me and will help me before I even take any step."

In swimming, the UAE national coach, Jay Benner, empathises with his young charge, Mohammed Salem, a breaststroke specialist who was given a wild card invitation to the Games.

Salem has modest aspirations at the Aquatics Centre, but he will still be able to say he shared the same Olympian water as Michael Phelps.

"One of great things about the Olympics is it defines the drama of perseverance through athletic achievement," Benner said.

"For each great success story, there is a dozen more disappointments and hardships. Even though we celebrate the gold medallist, as a coach and former athlete you can really appreciate the competing from a different end.

"Every athlete wants to have the performance of their life at the Olympic Games. But as a coach and athlete you understand and appreciate the road it took in getting there."

Sometimes the road is not all that long. Mohammed said she was surprised she was the UAE's pick to go to the Games, on account of the fact she has been weightlifting for less time than some of her national team colleagues. And the team has only been set up for a little over three years anyway.

For all but Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, the skeet shooter who will be appearing at his fourth Olympics, London 2012 will be an entirely novel experience.

According to Tiago Venancio, a Portuguese swimmer who missed out on making it to a third successive Olympics having trained in Dubai for the past year, being at such a major event can be a disarming experience for an unheralded rookie. It is a like being a tourist - but with pressure.

"I wasn't expecting it, then I went to the Olympics as if it was a holiday," Venancio said of his experience of Athens as a 16 year old in 2004. "I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing'.

"Then four years ago, it was different. The Olympics is completely different. There is lots of pressure, lots of people at the pool, all the media from your country focused on you. It is crazy."

So, for those who are not in contention for medals, what will constitute success?

"All the best athletes will be there, and hopefully that means I will raise my game and improve my results because of it, that is my target," said Mohammed Abbas Darwish, the London-bound UAE triple jumper.

"For this Olympic Games my aim is to go to the final. This is what is important for me."

Darwish, the affable Al Wasl athlete who only took to the triple jump seriously three years ago, acknowledges he does not feel the type of acute pressure the leading jumpers are probably suffering at present.

"It is a different feeling because I am not fighting for a medal," he said. "It is a different situation because my aim is to make the final.

"If I was fighting for a medal, maybe the emotions would be different for me. For next time [in the Rio Olympics in four years], maybe. I hope."

pradley@thenational.ae

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