This year will be a historic one for UAE sports as the country sends 26 athletes — its biggest-ever contingent — to the Olympics. The preparations have been close to thorough, with the nation expecting a lot from the football squad that registered their first qualification for the Games.
Everyone has been upbeat since that mid-March evening in distant Tashkent when Mehdi Ali’s young bunch of players believed in themselves and fought back from a two-goal deficit to register a 3-2 win over Uzbekistan.
The win has sent expectations soaring as this golden generation of footballers begin their search for an identity at the international level. Rather grudgingly, but going with the rankings, bookmakers in the UK have pitched the UAE as the least expected team to win the gold medal when the football competition ends on August 11.
The UAE has historically been one of the Olympic Movement countries that were present to make up the numbers. But Shaikh Ahmad Hasher Al Maktoum changed all that at the 2004 Athens Olympics when he shot his way to glory in the double trap, equalling the world record in the process. Since then, sportspersons from the UAE, particularly its shooters, have been respected as serious contenders.
Shaikh Ahmad has long since retired, but the UAE’s only Olympic medalist is still involved in developing talent to assume the mantle, following a disheartening display by him and the UAE marksmen team at the last Olympiad in Beijing.
And it is here that his cousin Shaikh Saeed Bin Maktoum Al Maktoum fits in perfectly as a skeet shooter. Ever since he took up shooting as a tender six-year-old in 1981, Shaikh Saeed has improved consistently. His performances prove it. Making his fourth straight Olympics, Shaikh Saeed has been undergoing intensive training after qualifying for the 2012 Games, following his triumph at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup Finals held at Al Ain at the end of last year. His most notable victory came in 2006 when he won the Asian Shooting Championship. Four years later he bagged a gold at the ninth Arab Shooting Championship.
Shaikh Saeed will be hoping that he can carry forward this sort of form and be on the podium in London.
Joining him will be his cousin Shaikh Juma Bin Dalmouk Al Maktoum who will participate in the double trap discipline. Born in 1984, Shaikh Juma has been sort of a late starter — he began competing seriously only in 2009. His first real competition was also his best achievement as he landed a silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. After clinching gold at the Asian Shooting Championships in Doha earlier this year, he seems a strong medal hopeful, should he be able to replicate his earlier winning performances under the guidance of his mentor and coach Shaikh Ahmad.
Dhaher Al Aryani is the third shooter in the UAE squad, as the lad from Ras Al Khaimah lines up in the trap discipline scheduled from July 28 to August 6 at the Royal Artillery Barracks in London.
The UAE’s next biggest chance of a medal can be in the track and field event. Mohammad Abdullah Abbas will compete in the triple jump while Betlhem Belayneh Deslagn will take part in the women’s 1,500m.
Other athletes wearing the UAE colours include Khadija Mohammad in the women’s 75kg weightlifting, Hameed Al Derei in the men’s 66kg judo, and Mubarak Al Beshir in the men’s 100m breaststroke.
Though much may not be expected of these lesser-known athletes, due to the constant development of their disciplines here over the past few years, it will be a worthwhile experience for them to participate in the Games.
Yousuf Al Serkal, Vice-President, UAE National Olympic Committee, and one of the top delegates monitoring the performance of UAE athletes, is realistic about the country’s chances.
Speaking about the football squad, he says, “Of course, there is a lot of hype surrounding the football team. This is because the achievement is so rare. Just imagine a young nation such as the UAE has qualified for an Olympic Games as one of the top 16 teams in the competition. But we need to be realistic about our chances. In modern football anything is possible, as besides hard work and commitment, one also needs a little bit of luck to go along.”
The UAE will be relying on luck as well when the team take on Uruguay (tomorrow), hosts Great Britain (July 29) and Senegal (August 1) in their Group A preliminary round fixtures. “If we can get four points from these three matches, then we are into the knock-out stages. This alone will be an achievement considering that we are at the Olympics for the first time. And in the knock-out stages anything is possible,” says Al Serkal.