Gulf nations learning cash can't always buy gold
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — At a nearly empty stadium in Dubai, several dozen runners had gathered in a bid to clock qualifying times for the London OIympics.
There were Africans runners stretching on the track and athletes from Europe mingling in the stands. Despite hosting the event, though, the United Arab Emirates was barely represented.
There were only two female runners from the UAE, and they were naturalized citizens from Ethiopia. The only male Emirati competing finished last in the 800 meters.
"We are still beginners in athletics to be honest with you," Saad Awad Rashed al-Mehri, the general secretary of the UAE Athletic Federation, said as he watched this Asian Athletic Federation Permit meet in April. "We try our best but other countries have had athletics for a long time. We are starting late even compared with the rest of the Gulf."
The UAE's lack of Olympic success is common among the oil-rich nations in the Gulf.
Despite their vast wealth and the fact state-owned companies splash out billions of dollars attracting high-profile sporting events, these Middle Eastern countries have collectively managed only eight Olympic medals. UAE hasn't won an Olympic medal since 2004. Oman is still looking for its first medal in London, while Bahrain was stripped of the first gold medal it claimed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when disgraced 1,500-meter runner Rashid Ramzi subsequently failed a doping test.
Some of their troubles stem from the fact they have relatively small populations with little sporting history. These conservative countries have also only embraced women's sports in the past decade, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar sending women to the Olympics for the first time this year.
But this alone can't explain their dismal international showing. Most of these countries don't have systems to develop athletes to the elite level and many still face apathy from governments who direct sports money to football. Another issue is motivating young potential athletes.
"This country is wealthy country. Nobody wants to send their kids for the 400 ," al-Mehri said, trying to illustrate his point. The young people "have an iPod. They have blackberries, iPhones. Whatever they want, they will get so they don't want to sweat a little bit. We have to work to convince them about the importance of being an athlete."
Coaches interviewed in Qatar and the UAE all had stories of an athlete who showed promise but became sidetracked.
Jama Aden, who coaches Qatar's middle and long distance runners, acknowledged that working a country with the one of the world's highest per capita incomes is a challenge. He previously worked in Sudan for eight years and produced several champions.
"It's our job to motivate them and say you can make a name for yourself, the country and that sets you up in the future," said Aden, who has two runners — Musaab Abdulrahman Bala in the 800 and Hamza Driouch in the 1,500 — who will take part in the Olympics. "It will take a long time for Gulf athletes to see what it takes to be a champion."
Larry Barthlow, who was an advisor to the UAE federation until last year, said inspired athletes were not always so hard to find. He noted that Emirati athletes had better results in the 1970s fueled in part by the fervent nationalism that followed the country's independence. Nowadays, he said, it can be difficult to get a Gulf athlete to train regularly because many aren't as "hungry."
He blamed some of that on Gulf officials who aim to produce one or two stars — often filling those spots with Africans — rather than developing grassroots programs that produce dozens of Olympians.
"If you develop a program where you have 50 athletes, maybe two or three rise to the top," Barthlow said. "If you have what you think is one great athlete and spend money on international coach, who is to say he has potential to go the next level? Just because he is best in the UAE doesn't mean he has potential to go to the next level."
IAAF President Lamine Diack also said these countries need to start at the grassroots, instituting athletics programs in the schools if they want to produce stars. Most sports programs in the Gulf have been run out of clubs, which in some cases pay young athletes.
"You have to develop it," Diack said. "It's better to go to the schools. But in saying that, I'm not inventing anything. For my generation, athletics was the sport in the schools. All of us were athletes."
Change, though, is coming. While Bahrain is still intent on recruiting athletes from Africa, Qatar is shifting away from this practice. The 2022 World Cup host has instituted an athletic system and UAE is planning to follow suit.
Qatar now has the state-of-the art Aspire Academy with some of the world's top coaches and introduced an Olympics program which this year attracted 20,000 students. It has several medal contenders including shooters and high jumper Motaz Essa Barsham.
"We are going in the right direction in terms of having our athletic levels being of international and Olympic standard," Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the general secretary of the Qatar Olympic Committee, told The Associated Press.
The UAE appears to be following that lead, with plans to introduce an Olympics program in the schools this year which has corporate support and will reach 10,000 youngsters. It also plans to build an Olympic Sports Complex as part of a 10-year plan and has established a women's track and field squad that will compete internationally.
While medals are still years away, Qatar and UAE are making progress.
They are sending many more athletes to London who qualified outright, rather than depending on invitations from the IOC. And they both have several teenagers — UAE sprinter Talal al-Alami, for instance — who appear willing to make sacrifices necessary to compete at the highest level.
A fan of Jamaican and American runners, the 15-year-old al-Alami trains six days a week, two hours a day and is eyeing a spot on the 2016 Olympics team.
"Just to represent the UAE in the Olympics would be a goal even if I didn't make it past the first round," al-Alami said. "Just wearing the flag on your chest and running on TV would shows there is UAE in the world and they can run."
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