x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A quest that is mad but true

It may seem strange to some to keep an eye out for prodigies but the prodigies themselves don't see the madness.

Racers gathered at Al Ain Raceway on Friday, October 1, 2010, to participate in the UAE Rotax Max Challenge kart race. Mohammed al Dhaheri (222) leads the pack during the DD2 qualifying race.
Racers gathered at Al Ain Raceway on Friday, October 1, 2010, to participate in the UAE Rotax Max Challenge kart race. Mohammed al Dhaheri (222) leads the pack during the DD2 qualifying race.

Upon a mad planet, I spent the bygone weekend participating in completely rational madness. From one edge of the UAE to the other, I watched junior karting at Al Ain Raceway and junior golf at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which itself would hardly seem loopy except for one corner of one eye. With that corner, I kept a look-out just in case an Emirati child turned up and displayed promising prowess. That, in turn, would seem crazy but for the curious little fact that it's not.

The search for prominent future athletes in any relatively new country will have to mine the achingly young ages, and that's a matter of necessity in a world ever more crowded and competitive and intricately trained. Or have you heard the one about Lewis Hamilton at age 10 approaching McLaren boss Ron Dennis and crowing he'd drive for him someday? Have you seen the video clip of Tiger Woods playing golf on a TV talk show at an age three months shy of three?

We know such prodigies mislead many parents. We know the rarefied case of Richard Williams's tennis brainstorm has caused a million adults to force melancholy children into absurd attempts to emulate the rags-to-Venus-and-Serena storyline. We know that most of the time, the non-school portion of childhood should be a pressure-free phase allowing the frittering of time with middling activities that could bore the skin off an iguana.

We also know that while all children are special, some have such aptitude and passion in a certain direction that it seems almost as fundamental as respiration. Is it possible to imagine Hamilton in a profession other than driving or Woods in one other than golf? "Actually, this is exactly the type of series that's going to produce the next Formula One driver," said Guy Sheffield, the Al Ain Raceway general manager who knows his game utterly. He knows that karting served as proving ground for most of the famous names, and he knows those names required years of painstaking seasoning.

He knows about Hamilton racing at Rye House Kart in England from age 8 and winning his first British Karting Championship at 10. And about Michael Schumacher at the Kerpen-Horrem kart track in Germany by age six with his father taking on a second job and his mother working at the track canteen. And about the kid Fernando Alonso winning Spanish karting titles to lure sponsors when his family lacked the fearsome money required.

Everyone around motorsports can look at a phenomenal driver such as the UAE's Mohammed al Dhaheri, who didn't sit in a go-kart until his early 20s, and say that as far as clambering from there all the way to the biggest league, "You're up against it," as Sheffield put it. In the UAE at this point, the senior grids remain more populous than the junior grids. And then even when starting young, there's a cultural tug for families needing to adapt to prodigy schedules, raising another obstacle. In that vein, Sulemain Al Rawahi, an Omani director for a university cultural programme in Muscat, has turned his free time over to his excellent sons' passions, driving Sanad, 15, and Abdullah, 13, to kart races around the UAE as they aim for the sky.

This family is uniquely, enviably close, the boys' mother applauding their karts as they zoom by, but how many families can sustain such redefinition when the path is so exacting? Some of the 28 golfers at the Abu Dhabi Junior Open last Saturday have above-the-clouds aspirations plus a clear idea of the length and roughness of the trail. Their parents fret that they neglect practising the short game, that by living here they miss out on learning to play in howling weather, that they play too many video games.

Then there's 13-year-old Sana Tufail, who won the EGF Ladies Match Play in May and posted the lowest gross score among girls on Saturday. She talks of her own game with a knowledge lacking in people triple her age. If you ask who sparked her original interest, she'll say, "Tiger", as if the answer were obvious. Sana, whose family hails from Surrey, England, envisions a pro career, and you wouldn't want to dissuade her even if you could.

And that's the thing. If the craven search for prodigies around the world does seem mad, the prodigy himself or herself would be the first to disagree. To them, aiming anywhere else would seem downright loopy.