x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Olympics: The teenager who will give sport a lift

The sole representative from the tight group of Emirati female weightlifters is ready to make history in London, writes Paul Radley.

Khadija Mohammed trained at Dubai’s Al Shabab in the build-up to the Olympics.
Khadija Mohammed trained at Dubai’s Al Shabab in the build-up to the Olympics.

It is unlikely Khadija Mohammed will ever forget her 17th birthday. The Dubai schoolgirl started June 19, 2012 with the unenviable chore of an end-of-term Arabic examination.

She ended it with the knowledge she was going to become the UAE's first ever weightlifting Olympian. As birthday presents go, she has had worse.

"I was absolutely concentrating on the exam, I wasn't thinking about weightlifting at all," Mohammed, who will compete in the 75kg weight class in Stratford says of the moment she found out she had been selected to represent her country.

"As soon as I left the exam, they called me from the [Emirates Weightlifting Federation] committee. It was a coincidence that it was my birthday as well."

The UAE were granted a place in the weightlifting competition at London 2012 by way of the exploits of their inexperienced team - all six of whom were aged between 14 and 20 - at the Asian championships in South Korea earlier this year.

It was a significant feat for a country in which the idea of having a female weightlifting team of substance would have seemed entirely laughable a little over three years earlier.

Yet winning the place was the easy bit. The national governing body then had to make the agonising decision of who out of the six young women most merited the spot.

Uncomfortable as it was, the girls themselves made the selection process as painless as possible, according to Sultan bin Mejren, the president of the federation.

"It was a very difficult decision to make," he said. "We have a very united team. They are like one body. The coach [Najwan El Zawawi, who was an Olympian for Egypt] is with them like a sister, a friend, a mother, everything.

"They said: anyone of us could represent us, whoever you pick we are happy. The coach recommended us three names to choose from.

"We discussed it and decided on the person who would make each of them the happiest. We could not make a competition for them to select one, we based it on how good to each other they are and how friendly."

The strong bond between coach and student is typified by the fact Mohammed's sole stated aim for this competition is to match what El Zawawi managed when she competed at the Sydney Games of 2000.

She concedes she would be happier if she was doing it with a little bit of help from her friends, however.

"I'd hoped they could be here, too, but the decision was down to the committee," Mohammed said of her absent teammates.

"I was surprised [they chose me] but extremely happy. I have only been doing weightlifting for two years, and I have many colleagues who have a lot more experience than me."

A "lot more experience" is somewhat of an overestimation. The sport remains in the embryonic phase among females in this country, having only really taken root when El Zawawi was brought to Dubai at the end of 2008.

The Egyptian coach scouted around schools for people to coach, initially basing her ideas of potential new recruits mainly on their respective body shapes.

Meanwhile, her employers borrowed training facilities from schools, as well as from Sheikha Maitha bin Mohammed, who represented the UAE in taekwondo four years ago.

"When I came here four years ago, everyone told me I won't be successful because our girls won't be accepted as weightlifters," El Zawawi said.

"It took three months to build up a relationship with these girls. In the beginning, we only had two or three girls."

Despite the prevailing attitudes of some people to women in sport, especially one of weightlifting's nature, here, the nascent national team grew and began to flourish.

Along the way greater acceptance, typified by a change to the rules governing the sport's dress code, smoothed their path to the point they earned a qualifying spot for one of them to go to the biggest event in sport.

When she takes to the lifting platform at London's Excel Centre, Mohammed will be the representative for that group of pioneers.

"This is history in her life and in our life," Bin Mejren said of the Emirati competitor. "She has the accreditation of an athlete at the Olympic Games, 2012, London. She will have her name on that for all of history.

"She is the history-maker, but she has great appreciation from all of the other girls. They are very united."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

 

@ Visit our dedicated Olympics microsite at london2012.thenational.ae