x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Olympics: Lone runner hopes to inspire UAE women athletes

Desaleyn begins in 1,500m heats today and the Ethiopia-born Olympian will rely on tactics more than pace in a bid for the finals.

Desaleyn’s best time of four minutes, eight seconds is two seconds slower than 2008 Olympic winning mark.
Desaleyn’s best time of four minutes, eight seconds is two seconds slower than 2008 Olympic winning mark.

LONDON // Bethlem Desaleyn, the Ethiopian-born runner who will become the UAE's first female track Olympian today, says she wants to inspire Emirati women to take up running.

The 20 year old from Addis Ababa represents the UAE, but still lives and trains in Ethiopia. As such, she is not short on role models of her own in her chosen field.

She lists Derartu Tulu's gold medal run in the 10,000 metres at the Sydney Games in 2000 - less than a year after she had given birth - as her earliest Olympic memory.

Ethiopia won the 39th medal - and 19th gold - of its Olympic history when Tiki Gelana crossed first in the women's marathon around the streets of London yesterday. Every one of them has come in running events of 3,000m or longer.

Inspiring a dynasty like that would be a big task for a runner whose main aim is to make it out of her first round. But Desaleyn is hoping she can at least spark an interest in the sport among UAE nationals by her appearance at the Games.

"I was brought up in Ethiopia and running is our No 1 sport," said Desaleyn, who begins her London 2012 campaign with the heats of the 1,500 metres at the Olympic Stadium today.

"Seeing people like Derartu Tulu and Meseret Defar was inspirational. It is nice to be the first [UAE representative] in athletics and I hope I can be an inspiration to other young girls in the UAE the way Defar was to me.

"Like most athletes, the Olympics comes once in a lifetime and I want to do my best and hopefully serve as an inspiration to women in the UAE."

As the only non-Muslim in the UAE's Olympic team, Desaleyn has not had to contend with the dilemma of whether to fast during Ramadan, as the rest of the squad have done. Neither does she compete in a headscarf.

She will be without one regular companion, though. Desaleyn has spent much of the recent past travelling the world with Ali Saeed Mohammed, her friend, training partner and UAE teammate, as each chased qualification via the B standard for the Games.

Mohammed did not make it, leaving Desaleyn as the lone representative for the UAE on the track. Training while in London will have been a less sociable experience.

"If it is a hard session, you think about making it through, hitting your times," she said of her mindset during training.

"You work hard and then relax. I try to visualise the racing scenario. If it is just a jogging session then I think about anything from dinner to shopping. A light session does not take much mental concentration."

Ahmed Al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletics Federation, has cautioned against expecting too much from a runner who was still busy flying around the world trying to qualify until recently.

However, the former Al Wasl marathon runner does feel the nature of championship racing, with a heavy accent on tactics rather than pace, could work in Desaleyn's favour. "The Olympics are different," Al Kamali said.

"It is not GCC, it is not West Asia, it is not Asia. It is only the very best athletes in the world.

"I have a feeling that [Desaleyn] may go to the next round. She is running four minutes, eight seconds, and Olympic races are always tactical runs.

"The last Olympics was won in 4:06, so if she is with everybody in the last 200m she has a chance of making the final. She has a strong kick finish.

"I would not be very surprised if she went to the final. It is not Diamond League, it is the Olympics and the races are very different."

Larry Barthlow, her mentor and former coach, also tried to quell the expectations.

"Her Olympic final is the first round," Barthlow said. "If she gets through, that was a major accomplishment. What people in the UAE must understand is this is the world stage and the big show. Only 12 people around the world make it the finals.

"Look how long it took [Hicham] El Gerrouj to win a gold. The fastest does not always get through, championship running is so much different than running fast."

pradley@thenational.ae

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