Emirati powerlifter Mohammad Khamis Khalaf added his second Paralympic gold medal to his tally when he lifted 220kg in the men’s 88kg in Rio on Wednesday. It follows on from his earlier gold medal in the men’s 82.5kg category, where he had lifted 217.5kg in Athens in 2004, and a silver in the 90kg category, when he lifted 227.5kg despite an elbow injury in Beijing in 2008.
This takes the 46-year-old veteran’s medal haul to three honours from five consecutive Paralympic appearances, making him the UAE’s greatest Paralympian of all time.
At the time of going to press, the UAE had an all-time high total of 14 Paralympic medals — three gold, eight silver and three bronze medals — in seven appearances since Barcelona 1992. Five of these medals have come in Rio to date, where, aside from Khalaf’s gold, Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani has also won three silver medals in shooting and Mohammad Al Hammadi has won gold in the 800-metres, making it the UAE’s greatest appearance at a Paralympics.
In able-bodied sport, the UAE has won two Olympic medals in nine appearances — a gold in the men’s double-trap shooting by Shaikh Ahmad Hasher Al Maktoum in Athens in 2004 and a bronze in the men’s 81kg judo by Sergiu Toma in Rio this summer.
So, aside from being just the UAE’s greatest Paralympian, Khalaf is also the country’s most decorated athlete across both Olympic and Paralympic formats.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted: “I’m proud of Mohammad Khamis Khalaf for his gold medal victory at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. His gold medal win in weightlifting is a message to all our athletes that the only real disability is weak determination and willpower.”
Born in Qatar, Khalaf was diagnosed with polio and lost the use of both the legs when he was just 18 months old.
For the first 10 years of his life, he was kept out of public view by his parents, who were worried about how he would be accepted by society. He was home-schooled by his older sister until his family moved to Abu Dhabi in 1970, where he first attended a rehabilitation centre and was then accepted for enrolment in a mainstream government school.
While at the technical college in Abu Dhabi, he saw members of the Dubai Special Needs Club participate in a marathon in the capital and was encouraged by his friends to join the club located next to Al Ahli Club in Al Qusais, but didn’t build up the courage until his uncle moved to Dubai in 1991 and he decided to follow him.
Initially, he trained in shot put and discus, but then took up powerlifting under Moroccan coach Titou Kacem in 1993.
In his first major tournament in the World Powerlifting Championships held in Dubai in 1998, he finished ninth out of 24 participants in his weight division.
However, by the following year, he had won his first event — the New Zealand and Australian Open.
And in 2000, he made his Paralympic debut in Sydney, where he finished a surprise fourth. Buoyed by that result, he redoubled his efforts to win gold in Athens in 2004 and took silver, despite an elbow injury, in Beijing in 2008.
An injury sustained just before the start of the 2012 London Paralympics meant he had to withdraw even after qualifying. But he bounced back from that disappointment with his second gold in Rio.
Similarly, a shoulder injury had threatened to rule him out of this latest Paralympics, but he decided to risk it and postponed the scheduled surgery until after the Games. Luckily, that risk has paid off.
In between his five Paralympics, he won silver at the 2006 World Championships in Busan and gold at the 2014 Asian Paralympics in Incheon, as well as numerous medals in regional championships.
He has won a total of 14 gold medals, four silvers and two bronze medals in all competitions since his 1999 breakthrough and shows no sign of slowing, as he has quickly turned his attention to Tokyo 2020 — and a possible sixth consecutive Paralympic appearance — after getting off the podium in Rio.
Khalaf, Al Hammadi and Al Aryani are heroes who now serve as inspirations for all and prove that nothing is impossible. They also help push the agenda for even greater development in disability awareness across the Arab world.