UAE cool over Tokyo 2020 medal talk despite Asian Games success
Having enjoyed their most successful Asian Games yet, the UAE are now preparing for the bigger challenge that is the Olympics Games, to be held in Tokyo in 2020.
But in doing so, they are mindful of the roadblocks ahead.
The UAE brought home from Indonesia 14 medals – including three golds, six silvers and five bronze – but it is worth noting that nine of them came from jiu-jitsu, a martial art which made its debut at the Asiad this year and is not an Olympic sport just yet.
It is the same case with jet-ski, from which the UAE reaped two medals.
In Tokyo they are likely to be competitive in football, judo and shooting – all of which earned them medals in Indonesia. In fact, the two Olympic medals the UAE have won since making their Olympic debut at the 1984 Los Angeles Games came from shooting and judo, when Sheikh Ahmed Hasher Al Maktoum won gold in the double trap at Athens 2004 and Sergiu Toma claimed bronze in Rio de Janeiro two years ago.
The powers that be in the country's sports fraternity are still in the midst of developing world-class athletes across a broad range of disciplines, which is a process that takes time – certainly longer than the two years left before Tokyo 2020 gets under way.
“We have to be realistic when we speak about Olympic medals,” said Abdul Malik Jani, director of the UAE National Olympic Academy who travelled to Indonesia as deputy head of the 217-strong delegation. "To reach the Olympic level is a hard and long journey, and we are getting there slowly."
Jani said there are plenty of positives to be drawn from their recent trip, "as we provided the opportunity for many young athletes in various sporting disciplines to participate".
Indeed, one of the UAE's biggest advantages is the presence of youth, and many athletes were sent to Indonesia to use the experience there to prepare for the Youth Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires from October 6-18.
Teams competing in archery, fencing, golf, sailing and weight-lifting – all Olympic disciplines – comprised teenagers aged between 15 and 18.
Aliya Al Ahmed, 15, and Ghalia Al Blooshi, 16, showed much promise after reaching the round of 32 in women's archery. Sailors Hamza Al Ali, 17, Saif Al Mansoori and Salama Al Mansoori, both 16, will also have been richer from the exposure they received in Indonesia.
“We had several athletes as young as 16 to 18," Jani said. "It was a learning curve for them. They may not have been in the race for medals but the experience gained is valuable."
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One of the biggest challenges for the UAE is the paucity of world-class talent that is homegrown, a point Ahmed Al Kamali, president of the UAE Athletics Federation, made last week after Alia Saeed failed to win a medal in the 5,000 metres and 10,000m races.
Al Kamali defended the performance of Saeed, an Ethiopian-born distance runner who in 2010 switched allegiance to the UAE, saying that more such athletes needed to be tapped among the non-Emirati sections of society.
“Alia has done her best in Jakarta and all we can do is to prepare her for 2020,” said Al Kamali, who is determined to realise a recent Presidential decree to allow children of Emirati women married to foreigners, residents and expatriate children born in the country to be drafted into national teams.
One sport that has already seen success in this regard is judo. Toma may have failed to replicate his Rio success in Jakarta, while fellow Olympian Ivan Remarenco also returned empty-handed. But Victor Scvortov delivered a bronze medal.
All three Moldovan-born judokas will be medal hopes in Tokyo, but their progress can only be gauged from their performances at competitions between now and 2020. The IJF World Championship in Baku, Azerbaijan, from September 20-27 will be one such event.
“We came up a bit short of winning two or more medals in Jakarta, but it was a good platform for the worlds in Baku,” said Naser Al Tamimi, general secretary of the UAE Wrestling, Judo and Kick Boxing Federation.
“We have already drawn up a schedule for Tokyo. Obviously the first objective is to qualify, which we are confident of.”
When it comes to homegrown talent, one need not look beyond Sheikha Latifa Al Maktoum, who came close to a podium finish in Indonesia, in both the team and individual events.
Disappointed by her Asiad finish, Sheikha Latifa has nevertheless sharpened her focus on 2020.
“We tried hard to win an Asian Games medal but that didn’t happen, and now I’m preparing my horse [10-year-old grey Cobolt 8] to qualify for Tokyo,” she said.
“This horse is improving all the time, and hopefully we can qualify and hopefully aim at an Olympic medal.”