Dubai: In less than six years, the UAE has suddenly become a fast-rising power in the field of Asian athletics. When Ahmad Al Kamali took over as President of the UAE Athletics Federation (UAE AF) in June 2008, things were completely different. Some people, including officials working with him, were critical of his decision to bring in talent from other countries. But Al Kamali remained unfazed. And now, a few years on, his tactic has started yielding fruit with Betlhem Belayneh Desalegn and Alia Saeed bringing home three medals — two gold and a silver — at the 20th Asian Athletics Championships held in Pune, India last week. A lot of hard work and planning have gone into this effort, and now that things are falling into place, Al Kamali is convinced that the two girls along with an entire generation following them will usher in key moments on the international stage for the UAE.
GULF NEWS: It’s been quite a journey for you with these two girls Alia Saeed and Betlhem Desalegn. Can you take us through it?
AHMAD AL KAMALI: When these two girls first came from Ethiopia, there were a lot of negative voices, some of them even from my board members. But I just stuck in there, merely because I believed in these girls and I was convinced I was doing the right thing. I put a training programme together for the girls and, more importantly, asked everyone to have patience.
Q. Betty went to the London Olympics last year but did not impress. How did things change for her?
A. We changed the coach in March this year. We brought in Abdi Bile [the 1987 world champion in the 1,500m] and suddenly both girls started showing a drastic improvements in their times. Now, as an after-thought, I feel that I erred. I should have changed the coach just after the London Games last year. We lost a crucial six months and I take responsibility for that. But in all fairness, the girls have done well to improve within just three months and make the UAE proud.
Q. What sort of future do you envisage for these two girls?
A. The target is to keep these two on the podium each time they participate at Asian level. They are now in their most crucial period of their careers. Later this month they will get a chance to test themselves against the world’s best in the Monaco and London Diamond League meetings, the World Championships in Moscow [August] and the Islamic Games in Jakarta [September]. We want them to get this experience and exposure so that they know where they both stand. After their return to the UAE we will continue with their training programme, which alternates between high-altitude and low altitude training and crucial competitions right until October 2014.
Q. What sort of dream do you have for UAE athletics?
A. I have another three years to go as UAE AF president. I believe we are doing a good job at the moment and the results have been showing this. Perhaps we should have started winning at the Asian level a bit earlier, but that was due to a mistake on our part. But now that we have reached this level I want to give this a final push for the next three years so that I can step away from the federation, but with an Olympic medal in athletics. We’ve come a long way over such a short period of time. The UAE AF was blacklisted by the IAAF only a few years back. But since I took over we have ensured that we have gained the confidence of the IAAF and today I can proudly say that we have the full backing and support of the world governing body. This can be seen by the fact that I received the maximum number of votes from members at the IAAF elections last year.
Q. Is there anyone who can follow in the footsteps of Alia and Betlhem?
A. Currently we have a squad of 45 boys and girls in the 16 to 18 years age group who have been training. These youngsters have been spotted either directly by our scouts or picked through the UAE School Olympic Games and the Commercial Bank of Dubai Athletics Championships. Slowly, we are introducing these juniors to various competitions around the world. Talal Munjid is in the UK for the next ten weeks training in the 100m and 200m. Fatima Al Hossani is in Morocco training in discus and shot putt, while Alia Yousuf is also in the UK training in high jump. After Eid, the remaining 42 athletes will go to Poland for a five-week camp.
Q. Recently you mentioned the involvement of the private sector. Can you elaborate on this?
A. As I said before, I want some private companies who have done so well in the UAE to come forward and shock me by offering to sponsor these two girls. I can assure these companies that their backing will be more than compensated during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. I have seen some of these private companies pump in millions for other sports. Our needs are comparatively small. We would need just $1 million over four years. That’s just Dhs 750,000 per year. I want the private sector to be part of our success and that is why I am so keen to have them with us. If we get everything that I have planned and envisaged, the UAE will be a force to reckon with in the near future.