DUBAI — At a nearly empty stadium in Dubai, several dozen runners had gathered in a bid to clock qualifying times for the London Olympics.
There were African runners stretching on the track and athletes from Europe mingling in the stands. Despite hosting the event, though, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was barely represented.
There were only two female runners from the UAE, and they were naturalised citizens from Ethiopia. The only male Emirati competing finished last in the 800 metres.
“We are still beginners in athletics to be honest with you,” Saad Awad Rashed Al Mehri, the general secretary of the UAE Athletic Federation, said as he watched this Asian Athletic Federation Permit meet in April. “We try our best but other countries have had athletics for a long time. We are starting late even compared with the rest of the Gulf.”
The UAE’s lack of Olympic success is common among the oil-rich nations in the Gulf.
Despite their vast wealth and the fact state-owned companies splash out billions of dollars attracting high-profile sporting events, these countries have collectively managed only eight Olympic medals.
UAE hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 2004. Oman is still looking for its first medal in London, while Bahrain was stripped of the first gold medal it claimed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when disgraced 1,500-metre runner Rashid Ramzi subsequently failed a doping test.
Some of their troubles stem from the fact they have relatively small populations with little sporting history.
But this alone can’t explain their dismal international showing. Most of these countries don’t have systems to develop athletes to the elite level and many still face apathy from governments who direct sports money to football. Another issue is motivating young potential athletes.
“This country is wealthy country. Nobody wants to send their kids for the 400,” Al Mehri said, trying to illustrate his point. The young people “have an iPod. They have blackberries, iPhones. Whatever they want, they will get so they don’t want to sweat a little bit. We have to work to convince them about the importance of being an athlete.”
Coaches interviewed in Qatar and the UAE all had stories of an athlete who showed promise but became sidetracked.
Jama Aden, who coaches Qatar’s middle and long distance runners, acknowledged that working a country with the one of the world’s highest per capita incomes is a challenge. He previously worked in Sudan for eight years and produced several champions.
“It’s our job to motivate them and say you can make a name for yourself, the country and that sets you up in the future,” said Aden, who has two runners — Musaab Abdulrahman Bala in the 800 and Hamza Driouch in the 1,500 — who will take part in the Olympics. “It will take a long time for Gulf athletes to see what it takes to be a champion.”
Larry Barthlow, who was an adviser to the UAE federation until last year, said inspired athletes were not always so hard to find. He noted that Emirati athletes had better results in the 1970s fuelled in part by the fervent nationalism that followed the country’s independence. Nowadays, he said, it can be difficult to get a Gulf athlete to train regularly because many aren’t as “hungry”.
He blamed some of that on Gulf officials who aim to produce one or two stars — often filling those spots with Africans — rather than developing grassroots programmes that produce dozens of Olympians.
“If you develop a programme where you have 50 athletes, maybe two or three rise to the top,” Barthlow said. “If you have what you think is one great athlete and spend money on international coach, who is to say he has potential to go the next level? Just because he is best in the UAE doesn’t mean he has potential to go to the next level.”
Qatar now has the state-of-the art Aspire Academy with some of the world’s top coaches and introduced an Olympics programme which this year attracted 20,000 students. It has several medal contenders including shooters and high jumper Motaz Essa Barsham.
“We are going in the right direction in terms of having our athletic levels being of international and Olympic standard,” Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the general secretary of the Qatar Olympic Committee, told the Associated Press.
The UAE appears to be following that lead, with plans to introduce an Olympics programme in the schools this year which has corporate support and will reach 10,000 youngsters. It also plans to build an Olympic Sports Complex as part of a 10-year plan and has established a women’s track and field squad that will compete internationally.