x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Olympics: The UAE's three best shots to win a medal in London

Paul Radley reports on the reasons how the Emirates have produced such exceptional marksmen, and why they are so good.

Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum will compete in the skeet event.
Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum will compete in the skeet event.

A steady pulse. Strong mental abilities. Great depth perception.

And healthy funding does not hurt, either.

The UAE's contingent of three Olympic shooters will rely on those attributes, and more, as they try to duplicate Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher's gold medal at the Athens Games of eight years ago.

His success remains the lone Olympic medal the UAE has managed, and is thus probably the finest sporting achievement in the country's history.

Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum, Sheikh Juma bin Dalmouk and Dhaher Al Aryani hope to continue that legacy. They may have sealed their places in London in low-key fashion when compared to their football playing colleagues, but there is no question shooters are the pride of Emirati sport.

And now, for the first time, the UAE has shooters in three separate disciplines.

So what makes a good shooter great, and what makes a great shooter an Olympic champion? And why are Emiratis so good at it?

Pressure

Sheikh Saeed, the man regarded as the best chance of following in Sheikh Ahmed's footsteps on to the Olympic medal podium, begins his campaign today. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare for the event, the culmination of which has been a long term training camp in Italy.

However it will all count for naught unless he can handle the pressure of intense competition.

"It is a totally psychological sport," said Rustam Yambulatov, the coach of the UAE's trap shooter, Dhaher Al Aryani.

He should know. Yambulatov is regarded as one of the leading competitive shooting coaches in the world. He was recruited to train the Fazza Shooting Team in Dubai last year after a long and decorated stint in Kuwait, during which he transformed the UAE's Arabian Gulf neighbours into major players on the international stage.

"Even the strong shooters, if they read about themselves in the newspaper, or their big boss says something about them, it raises the pressure," Yambulatov said.

"You have to be in the optimum fighting condition for the Olympic Games. The moment you go there you need to be feeling 100 per cent, intellectually, psychologically, everything. They all need to come together at the same point on the graph."

Yambulatov won a silver medal for the Soviet Union at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, having taken time off from his job as an engineer building bridges in Tashkent to compete.

"There are two kinds of responses to pressure," said the Uzbek coach, who said university professors used to test the Soviet shooters to work out how best to cope with the tension of competition.

"The first is that the pulse rises too much. The other is that the mind stops, the pulse comes down and you are too calm and you don't want to shoot.

"At optimal fighting condition, the pulse is normal. If my pulse is 120, I will shoot 25, 100 per cent. Less than 90 and it will be 24.

"Adrenalin helps. If your reactions are high you might shoot faster. You feel like you are shooting faster, but people watching from behind you say you are moving like a bullet, destroying the targets. If you get that feeling, you will end the winner."

According to Slavek Kurczewski, the manager of the Jebel Ali Shooting Club, where Sheikh Saeed trains when he is in Dubai, major competitions are won in the head.

"There are a lot of people out there who can shoot well, the bottom line is the guy who is the strongest mentally on the day is the winner," said Kurczewski, who has represented South Africa at two world championships in the non-Olympic practical shooting discipline

"Eighty to 85 per cent of a competition is decided between the ears, by how strong mentally you are. If you have the ability to isolate yourself from the outside pressure, from following your opponent's results, and not allowing them to influence your performance, that is success.

"The final edge is mental strength, nothing else. There are a lot of shooters who are very capable. They can shoot on and on and on in practice without missing a clay, but under the stress of competition they crumble."

 

Eyesight

The UAE's shooters have been clocking up the air miles to prepare for London. Sheikh Juma has been to places as diverse as Belarus and Lithuania, while Sheikh Saeed has spent most of his time in Milan.

They have not been holidaying. The trips have been designed to expose them to different types of shooting conditions - climatic as well as sighting - rather than against the uniform, fair skies and sand dune backgrounds which pervade in Dubai.

"Middle East shooters often have a problem with that," said Leonas Molotokas, the Lithuanian coach who has been overseeing Sheikh Saeed's skeet preparations in Italy.

"We are shooting on the open sky, and the background is always the same. Really we need more competitions on difficult backgrounds, against trees, against mountains."

Eyesight and natural coordination are clearly important, but it is possible to make good genetic gifts even better. The UAE's Olympic shooters have each gone to great lengths to train their depth perception, by travelling to ranges where the background differs from what they are used to.

They have all fallen back heavily on an old fail-safe method of self-improvement, as well - namely, sheer hard work. "Like with every sportsman, there are certain genetically inherited capabilities, such as motoric skills, your reaction times, your reflexes, your eye to hand coordination," Kurczewski said.

"You can certainly improve it through training. To a certain extent there are genetically acquired values, and the rest is hard work: practice, practice, practice."

 

Funding

Horse racing is said to be the sport of kings, but shooting is not far behind. The strong pedigree for the sport in the UAE may emanate from Royalty, but other Emiratis have benefited from their largesse, too.

At the Fazza range in Nad Al Sheba, a young academy of emerging shooters is being honed, and they want for nothing in terms of ammunition, equipment or even food, all thanks to the generosity of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed.

"He is a very good shooter himself. He came to the range one time and shot 24 out of 25, and I told him he should be on the team," said Loay Al Naim, the team's PR officer.

"But he is very busy with his duties and he is happy that the other shooters can benefit from what is provided for them."

While in London, the UAE's shooters are staying in five-star luxury rather than the confines of the Athletes' Village, having flown business class from Dubai last week.

"Maybe [the reason for UAE's talent for the sport] is because it is a tradition, especially between the wealthy Emiratis," Kurczewski said. "This is a sport which requires huge financial resources.

"The equipment itself is expensive, and to be good you have to practice almost every day and you have to practice extensively, so the cost involved is very high.

"We are talking about firing 600 to 700 shots every day, so there is a substantial cost involved with it. Each gun costs around €6,000 (Dh27,000) to €8,000. So this is not a cheap sport."

pradley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE