History was made in the name of the UAE on Tuesday when Sergiu Toma won the bronze medal in judo at the Rio Olympic Games. It was just the second-ever medal won by the UAE in its 32-year Olympic history and the first since Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum’s double trap gold in 2004.
The nation has every reason to rejoice, as medals at the Games do not come by easily and require years and years of planning, preparation, and laborious effort. The UAE flag was raised as Toma stood on the podium at the Carioca Arena 2 alongside his fellow medalists and it is a proud achievement no one can take away from him or the country.
Yet the feat has been met by mixed reaction on social media from Emiratis, with some noting the fact that Toma is actually Moldovan and only took the UAE passport three years ago.
The UAE Wrestling, Judo and Kick Boxing Federation has said that its strategy for the past few years has been to naturalise judokas in order to build them up as role models to inspire a young generation of Emiratis. But some might argue that few young Emiratis can relate to a man who was born and raised elsewhere and only took the passport a mere three years ago.
So is Toma’s massive achievement in Rio really an inspiration for UAE youth? The answer is: It could be.
Sergiu Toma takes 81kg judo bronze, winning the UAE just a second Olympic medal in history and first since 2004 pic.twitter.com/XHTcicXWKd— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) August 9, 2016
When it comes to naturalising athletes, there are different ways in how various nations go about it.
Some countries simply give a passport to a star performer of a different nationality just to reap the rewards of the medals and results posted by that individual. But there are several cases where athletes become an integral part of their adopted nation’s society, and are heavily involved in community activities.
You do not need to be an Emirati in order to inspire youngsters here, particularly in a country as cosmopolitan as the UAE. Just look no further than Serbian swimmer Velimir Stjepanovic. He was born in Abu Dhabi, lives in Dubai, but competes for his native Serbia.
In the swimming scene in the UAE, he is a true legend. He is an active member in the aquatics community and many young Emiratis look up to him as a role model. He takes part in most of the local swim meets with his club Hamilton Aquatics and is no doubt inspiring budding swimmers here every day.
Ethiopian pair Alia Saeed and Betlhem “Betty” Belayneh have slowly been making an impact as two elite female track and field athletes. Representing the UAE for the past six years, Alia and Betty have been trying to inspire women in the country to take up running. They’ve been participating in local events like the Women’s 5K run and the 10K race at the Dubai Marathon, they’ve visited schools and spoke to young girls looking to get into the sport.
They’re still not household names in the UAE, but as long as they are around and are eager to take on the role of ambassadors for their sport in the country, sooner or later, the younger generation will start regarding them as idols.
Right now, Toma and his fellow Moldovans who have chosen the UAE as their new home, have a chance to make a real impact in the country. When the trio, Toma, Ivan Remarenco and Victor Scvortov, return from Rio, they should visit UAE schools, talk about their Olympics experience and offer to give clinics.
With judo becoming more and more popular in the UAE, capitalising on Toma’s medal is of the utmost importance and only by actively taking part in community events, will the 29-year-old be truly regarded as a local hero inspiring Emirati youth.
Until then, he’ll be the Moldovan who won a medal for the UAE.