x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Programme to cultivate sport heroes

The UAE has won few medals in international competitions, but that may soon change with the launch of a new training scheme.

DUBAI // Fatima al Janahi, 13, knows she has just moved a step closer to fulfilling her dream of becoming an international tennis champion like her idol, Maria Sharapova. Fatima has already tasted national and regional success by winning the UAE under-14s and under-13s singles tennis championship in consecutive years, and coming third in this year's GCC under-14s championship. Now, she has been selected along with nine other promising young athletes for a new Dubai Sports Council (DSC) programme aimed at propelling such athletes into the international arena. The initiative, called the Programme for Talents, is expected to address the UAE's dearth of medals in international competitions and help foster sporting heroes. "Every year, 10 of the best young Emirati athletes will receive academic scholarship and tutoring, the best possible training in their sporting discipline with the best coaches, allowing them to participate in international training camps and competitions as part of our vision of creating international athletes with good education," Ahmed al Sharif, the secretary general of the DSC, said yesterday. He said the council was prepared to invest "limitless funds" in the athletes, who will each remain part of the programme for four years. The selected athletes will also have access to international health care, medical insurance if they are hurt and social and psychological support. Depending on their age, they will receive an annual "salary" of between Dh2,000 (US$540) and Dh7,000. "After years of hard work we finally have a system in place that would turn our athletes into world beaters," said Mr Sharif. "This is an important first step in nurturing heroes to represent our nation from our country and our schools." Fatima, who will now receive coaching at the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida that moulded Sharapova, was elated to have been chosen. But she is keeping her tennis shoes planted firmly on the ground. "For now I will go to school here and work very hard on my tennis and education. I am so honoured to be given this opportunity and be the first girl tennis player to train abroad and on the programme," said Fatima, who attends Emirates International School. Another young athlete selected for the programme, Rashid al Filasi, a 15-year-old tennis player, has won every national youth championship for his age group since he was 10 and holds the GCC under-18 singles tennis title. "I am grateful that this has been established to help myself and other young Emiratis achieve their goal," he said. "I don't want to waste my talent and my education, and this programme will ensure that I am educated by the best and trained by the best." Any athlete aged between 12 and 18 can be nominated by their club for the programme, however those who have won a national championship are also eligible up to the age of 21. It will initially be open only to athletes from six sports - swimming, track and field, cycling, tennis, table tennis and tae kwon do - but DSC officials say more categories will be added later. They also warned that athletes who start to slip in school could be kicked off the programme. Rashid, for one, said he did not intend to let this happen: "I won't let my grades slip. This is a great opportunity. I will grab it with both hands." Athletes who wish to be considered for selection next year can contact the DSC. shafez@thenational.ae