x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'We don't participate to be champions'

With challenges like political unrest, inadequate facilities or social indifference to the sport, just raising profiles and setting a personal best is enough for athletes like the Yemeni hurdler Fatima Sulaiman Dahman.

For athletes like the Yemeni 400m hurdler Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, training for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea was difficult due to political unrest in the country.
For athletes like the Yemeni 400m hurdler Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, training for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea was difficult due to political unrest in the country.

The Yemeni hurdler Fatima Sulaiman Dahman trained indoors for six months before the world championships to avoid anti-government protests in her country. Even then, she often practised alone because there are few other female athletes in Yemen.

Palestinian runner Bahaa Al Farra had to borrow a pair of spikes from his Omani roommate before his 400-metre race and lamented how he must train on a dirt track because there are no facilities in Gaza.

These are the athletes who often finish last in their qualifying heats and are overshadowed by stars like Usain Bolt and Yelena Isinbayeva.

They did not come to Daegu, South Korea to win gold, or even qualify for the semi-finals. For most of the them, it is all about raising the profile of their countries, making friends and setting a personal best.

"I want to show I am here," said Dahman, who finished last in her 400 hurdles heat. Her time of 1 min 11.49 secs was a personal best, but nearly 13 seconds behind the next slowest runner.

"I know I can't win," he said. "But if I was training like the other athletes and had a good coach, I can do it. It's not impossible."

For every athletic powerhouse like the United States, Jamaica or Russia, there is Indonesia, Nicaragua or Yemen. They are among the countries permitted to send a male and female athlete who otherwise would not qualify for the worlds and often get one chance to perform on the big stage.

The 100m is traditionally the most popular event and a few, like the Indonesian sprinter Fadlin, who goes by one name, did advance past the preliminary round.

Although there are clear exceptions, like some of the African long-distance runners, athletes from poor countries face a difficult task of beating their bigger and stronger Western counterparts.

Often faced with minuscule budgets and political unrest at home, they are forced to improve and train with inferior facilities. Forget personal trainers, nutritionists or state-of-the-art equipment like a cryogenic chamber. These guys are just happy to have a track to run on, or a shot putt to throw.

"We don't participate to be champions," said Nabil Mabrouk, the president of the Palestinian Athletics Federation. "We have no budget. We have no facilities for track and field. My athlete runs on sand."

Yemen possibly best exemplifies all the challenges facing athletes from these nations as they compete at the world championships.

Already the poorest country in the region, Yemen has been paralysed for the past six months by political protests and armed conflicts between government forces and armed tribesmen, further destabilising the country.

"This year with all these problems, I couldn't do nothing," said Dahman, 18. "I would go to the stadium [which was filled with protesters] and they would say its closed. There are too many people inside."

Dahman also faced other hurdles that comes with living in a conservative country - obstacles not experienced by her male teammate, Nabil Al Garb.

A daughter of two doctors who encouraged her to compete, Dahman lives in a society that does not encourage women to take up a sport. Even Al Garb said he would oppose his sisters participating in sport.

"There are differences between boys and girls in my country," said Dahman. "He [Al Garb] can go to the stadium and train because he is a boy. I don't have any girls to push me. He has so many boys to push him."

Al Farra's problems are compounded by Israel's blockade of Gaza that he said prevented him from leaving for a training camp in Europe four years ago and contributed to him not getting a visa to attend to the world junior championships in Canada last year.

"All the other Arab athletes, they talk to me about going to a training camp in Sweden, the United States," said Al Farra, who said he lost a relative in an Israeli bombing and saw his father jailed for taking part in a protest. "If I could go to a training camp, I could break records and compete with the others. I want to be like them."

Many federations from poor countries say they can only improve with increased domestic and foreign funding for athletics, in addition to what they get from the International Association of Athletics Federation, the sport's world governing body.

"We have some good sprinters but the problem is the quality of the training and the culture, the habit of the professional athletes," the Indonesian coach Boed Darma Sid said. "I have an athlete from Papua [New Guinea] who ran 10.32 [in the 100] the past three months.

"But because he thought he was the best in Indonesia, he didn't keep to his training. Sometimes if I didn't come to the field, he is lazy and is in his room. Now, after two months, he ran 10.56. That is a cultural problem."

But even with all the challenges, the athletes from these countries remain upbeat and insist they are not intimidated by Western athletes — many of whom they treat more like celebrities than competitors. When the American long jump gold medallist Dwight Phillips walked past, two Indonesian athletes paused to have their photo taken with him.

And even though they all were handily beaten, they will leave Daegu with valuable experience and the dream that one day they could win a medal.

"Of course," the Yemen coach Fouad Obad said. "We hope someday to raise our flag."