Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher will strive to match his 2004 achievement in Beijing from tomorrow.
Gold in the crosshairs
On his triumphant homecoming from the 2004 Olympics, fiercely proud of having become the first Emirati sportsman to win a gold medal, Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher began dreaming that by the time the Games came round again, the UAE would have built training facilities to inspire young shooters to emulate his feat. As the Beijing Olympics begin tonight, four years after Sheikh Ahmed's victory in Greece, there is no such academy, few sponsors and surprisingly little fanfare. In other words, he says, the UAE has so far derived no lasting benefit from his success.
While disappointed that more has not been done to promote his sport, Sheikh Ahmed is philosophical. "If you had spoken to me in 2004, after I came back from Athens, I would have said that by 2008, I would have my own little academy," he says. "I thought by 2008, we will have something. Now, I hope by 2012 we will have something." First, however, he needs to concentrate on the quest for another gold. And as he mounts his defence of the 2004 title in the double trap event, he insists that he is chasing neither money nor attention, only further glory for his country and its practice of his sport.
He does, however, acknowledge an obvious flaw in his personal build-up for the Games. "One thing I did not do for the last three years is I did not compete. I have just been training for the last two months." Sheikh Ahmed is equally frank in his assessment of the UAE's commitment, at various levels, to the sport. He feels the failure to build on his achievement implies insufficient domestic recognition for either shooting or his own medal-winning status, and that this is mirrored in the unimpressive degree of corporate backing he has secured.
Although he approached a number of leading UAE businesses, he says, a couple turned him down outright and most of the others did not reply. He is left without a single endorsement and has just one sponsor, an Italian firearms manufacturer. The lack of commercial interest in his exploits extends to all Emirati competitors in Beijing. The national squad also has to make do with only one sponsor, Hydra.
"Money is not the main issue here," Sheikh Ahmed says. "Money cannot buy you an Olympic medal. The money wasn't there before the last Olympics. "My only sponsor is Beretta. I didn't go to them, they came to me." Local companies, he says, "are not willing to do anything. They only want to put their brand with the big names, like Arsenal or whatever. "We bring golfers here and spend billions. We bring tennis stars here and spend the same. We bring rugby. What do you want from rugby? Do you think with our physiques we can have a rugby team?"
Sheikh Ahmed concludes from the apathy that the only sport that seriously interests sponsors in his own country is football. "Other than that, I have no answer for you." But then he wonders whether he would still struggle if he were not an Emirati. "I think if I wasn't a local, they would sponsor me," he says. "It is my bad luck that I am a local." The thought of a far-fetched solution brings a smile to his face. Turning to his American coach, Josh Lakatos, he asks: "Can we switch passports for a while, please?"
Yet Sheikh Ahmed seems genuinely hurt by what he sees as corporate indifference. Is it, perhaps, that his status somehow deters businesses from offering endorsements and sponsorships? "I have been asked this question many times," Sheikh Ahmed replies. "OK, I am from a royal family and I can afford it." But, he says, "When I become a professional, I represent something bigger than a sheikh. I represent the country. The country is a lot bigger than a sheikh. So it doesn't matter whether I am a millionaire or a sheikh.
"I am doing something for the country and I should be taken care of. That's it." He warms to the theme: "Let us put this issue on the side. If you are going to say, 'He is a sheikh, that is why he does not need sponsors', then I am a sheikh and I am going to be a spoilt sheikh, drive my grand limousines and yachts, visit exotic places around the world. "You know what they are going to say then? 'How come? You are a sheikh, you have all this money but you have not done anything for your country.' But when I want to do something for my country, there is no help."
Sheikh Ahmed says he has no selfish concerns about his own involvement in the sport. "The bottom line is: I don't care about my future. I am 45. I can still carry guns and ammunition and I can travel around the world and shoot for the fun of it. "At the age of 45, what do you expect from me? I have to be a good father, a family man, take care of my health and my future. Can I do anything else for shooting? Yes, I can."
Nevertheless, Sheikh Ahmed is aiming for gold once more. He is content to be back in action at the highest level, intent on doing his best to repeat the form that brought him success in 2004. And in pledging to do all he can in pursuit of further Olympic glory, despite the long absence from competitive sport, he cites two driving inspirations: "For the love of the sport and for the love of my country, I am still doing it."