Dubai: Algeria’s Tawfiq Makhloufi, winner of the Best Arab athlete award at the Shaikh Mohammad Creative Sports awards in Dubai last week, can be described as the latest addition to the list of world-class middle-distance runners from the two neighbours, Algeria and Morocco.
Men such as Noureddine Morceli and Hicham Al Guerrouj are like folk heroes in the Maghreb region, and the 24-year-old Algerian joined the big league when he won the 1,500 metres gold at the London Olympics in August last year. However, Maloufi’s win was not without its share of controversy as only a day earlier he dropped out of the 800m heats citing injury.
Officials from the International Association of Athletics Association (IAAF) disqualified him from the Games for what they felt was a “bona fide lack of effort”, only for him to be reinstated the next day following a clean chit by two doctors. They certified his injury as genuine, and said he could participate in the 1,500m with appropriate treatment. After Makhloufi blazed the track to win in a time of 3:34.08 the next day, there were certainly a few eyebrows raised about his miraculous recovery.
After that, in September, Makhlofui did an encore at the 1,500m in IAAF World Challenge in Zagreb,capping what had been a brilliant year for the athlete with an infectious smile and halting English. He started 2012 with a 1,500m personal best of 3:32.94, but improved it to 3:30.80, while also taking off almost three seconds off his 800m best. He spoke on a range of subjects on the sidelines of the awards function. Excerpts:
Gulf News: What is your reaction to winning the Shaikh Mohammad Creative Sports Award?
Tawfiq Makhloufi: It’s a great honour for me to be standing here today with some of the best sporting achievers from the Arab world. It will surely motivate me to set the bar higher for this season.
After the 800 metres controversy in London, you went on to win the gold medal in the 1,500m. How did it feel to prove your critics wrong?
Yes, I had to pull out of the 800 metres heats became I was not fit to continue and was disqualified because of that. However, when I managed to win the mile a day later with treatment from my doctors, I proved that one can achieve anything should there be a will. I also thank my former coaches: Ali Redjimi from the civil protection team of the province of Souk Ahras in eastern Algeria and my hometown. as well as Ammar Brahmia, the former Algerian middle-distance runner. During the last 30 metres of the race, my lungs felt like coming out but, I said to myself that let me give my best for the country. It is something I have lived for and God was kind [to me].I was very happy not only for me, but for all the Arab people of the world to whom I dedicate this award.
Now with the Olympics behind you, what’s your goal for the new year?
This is a big year for athletics for we have the world championships in Moscow in August. I will be competing in both my events, the 800m and the 1,500m, and my goal is to run the 1,500m in under 3:30 and 800m in under 1:43. I want to settle for nothing short of gold in both these events.
What’s your training programme for such big events?
Last year, I trained in Kenya for three months before the London Olympics. This time, I have already started to train in Ethiopia, where I was for the last 15 days, before I came here for the award. I will be going back to Addis Ababa again for another 20 days before I go home for a break. As of now, the training schedule will continue there until March 31 and then comes the next phase of planning.
Who are your training partners at the moment?
We have a very focused group there and I am training with members of the Qatar team such as Hamza Driouchi and Sudan’s Abu Bakr Kaki. Hamza is an extremely talented athlete, who won the junior world championships in Barcelona.
Why do such great middle-distance runners come from Algeria and neighbouring countries such as Morocco?
(Laughs) It’s difficult to say, but we are privileged to have produced such great athletes. The presence of the likes of Noureddine Morceli, Djabir Saïd-Guerni or someone like Hicham Al Guerrouj from Morocco, certainly gave us the idols whom we could look up to and emulate.
The Arab world has seen lot of political upheaval in the last two years with the Arab Spring and continued violence in some of the countries. How difficult is it for a top-class athlete to retain his focus under such circumstances?
I think we must separate the problems of politics and sport. If you need to achieve something on the big stage, you must cut off yourself from everything, go to the training camp and try harder.