Distance runner Alia Saeed made history for the UAE by claiming the country’s first-ever athletics gold at the Asian Games, clocking a personal best time to win the 10,000m race in Incheon.
The 23-year-old shaved almost 50 seconds off her own national record to cross the finish line in 31:51.86.
The Ethiopian-born Saeed led a breakaway trio with five laps to go at Incheon’s Asiad Main Stadium, comfortably holding off China’s Ding Changqin and Ayumi Hagiwara of Japan to claim the UAE’s first gold of the Games.
It was a fast-paced race with all three medallists running sub-32 minutes and the top-two both running PBs.
Saeed’s previous best achievement on the continental stage came at the Asian Athletics Championships last year in Pune, where she took silver in 32:39.39 – her previous fastest time.
"I’m so happy to be an Asian champion for the first time. It was a hard race, everyone is strong so I really thank God for this win," an elated Saeed said after the race.
Ahmad Al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletics Federation, has been a driving force of support for Saeed and Betlhem Belayneh – another Ethiopian import – and had previously vowed to deliver three medals for the Emirates in track and field at the Games.
"This is a great achievement. We are very happy here in the federation and the National Olympic Committee," Al Kamali told Sport360.
"We are really happy that on the first day of athletics here in Incheon, we got a medal, and it’s not just any medal, but a gold one.
"And it won’t be the last one insha’Allah.
"I promised three medals and now we got the first one."
Saeed will now go for the double in Thursday’s 5,000m where she will face off with her fellow Emirati and good friend, Belayneh, a gold medallist in the event at the Asian Championships in Pune last year.
Belayneh begins her campaign today in the 1,500, which she also had won in Pune. The 22-year-old will contest the heats today, hoping to go through to the final tomorrow.
Asked how Saeed’s achievement can affect Belayneh, Al Kamali said: "It won’t put pressure on her. On the contrary, I think it will be a great motivation for her to try and do the same."
In the men’s 400m yesterday, UAE’s Saoud Abdelkarim advanced to the semi-finals with a season best 47.20 but the 26-year-old was unable to make it to the final.
Saeed’s medal is the UAE’s second of the Games. Sheikh Juma bin Dalmook Al Maktoum had won bronze in double trap last Thursday.
Elsewhere in the track, Asian Games athletics judges stripped Bahrain’s Kenya-born runner Ruth Jebet of her steeplechase victory as she was about to collect the gold medal after a crushing win.
The 17-year-old junior world champion was led away in tears as Bahraini team leaders wrangled with race officials who ruled that Jebet had stumbled and put a foot inside the track.
She had annihilated the field at Incheon’s Asiad Main Stadium, crossing the line in nine minutes, 31.36 seconds, more than 24 seconds inside the Games record.
But as Jebet, who switched nationality to Bahrain last year, was about to step onto the podium, the stadium announcer declared that the result had been cancelled, drawing gasps from the crowd.
The UAE’s hunt for a first medal at the Asian Games in Incheon continues after cyclist Yousif Mirza barely missed out on the podium in the omnium race yesterday, as Kuwait won the first Arab gold in squash.
The 25-year-old Emirati had entered the second day of the omnium ranked fifth after three events, having won the opening 15km scratch race.
But his 10th place in both the 1km time trial and the flying lap 330m time trial dented his chances. Mirza finished strong with a third place in the 40km points race but fell just four points short of a medal, settling for fourth overall.
The cycling competition will next move from the track to the road, where Mirza is more experienced and has a better chance of making the podium.
Meanwhile in the pool, UAE’s Mohamed Jasim Al Muhairi was seventh in his 50m freestyle heat and ranked 23rd overall out of 42 swimmers, as he clocked 24.54 seconds.
Dubai resident and Hamilton Aquatics swimmer, Mohammed Madouh of Kuwait, swam a respectable 23.51 to come fourth in his heat, and rank 13th overall. He missed out on a spot in the final by 0.23 seconds.
There was still reason to celebrate for the Gulf kingdom though as Abdullah Al Mezayen claimed Kuwait’s first gold medal of the Games in squash with a remarkable 10-12, 2-11, 14-12, 11-8, 11-9 win over India’s world No16 Saurav Ghosal.
UAE’s Majed Al Mansoori made an impressive run to the quarter-finals in the fencing individual foil competition at the Asian Games yesterday before getting eliminated by Olympic silver medallist, Japan’s Yoki Ota.
The 21-year-old Emirati delivered a pleasant surprise when he beat Kazakhstan’s Yuriy Bidarev and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Hazzazi to make it through the preliminaries before ousting Philippines’ Nathaniel Perez 15-11 in the last 16 to advance to the quarters.
Al Mansoori was humbled 15-3 by Ota in the last eight but UAE fencing team manager Qassim Al Taher was thrilled by the Emirati’s unprecedented achievement.
"For someone as young as Majed, to reach the quarter-finals at the Asian Games is a huge achievement. No other Arab has reached this stage in Asia," he said.
"He fought with honour in this event and the fact that he was exposed to such high level of competition will only help him improve more and more."
Meanwhile, UAE handball goalkeeper Mohammed Al Taher slammed the team’s coach Mounir bin Ali following their third consecutive defeat, placing "90 per cent" of the blame on him.
The UAE were unable to capitalise on the slim chance they had of advancing through their group as they suffered a crushing 28-18 defeat to Oman, the same team they had beaten in the Asian Championship last February to book a historic spot in the 2015 Handball World Championship in Qatar.
It meant the UAE went winless in Group C action and Al Taher was scathing in his evaluation of their coach.
"We didn’t leave our families and travel to Korea to lose. We came to win," said Al Taher, who plays for Al Wasl.
"I place 90 per cent of the blame on our coach. The players can take responsibility for the shots they missed but the coach is the one who makes all the substitutions and is the one who is responsible for everything, especially our defence.
"This was supposed to be our preparation for the World Championships. We should’ve been able to beat Oman.
"Us players are very unhappy with our performance at the Asian Games and our preparations for it. It is a stark difference to the way we played in the Asian Championships when we qualified to the Worlds.
"We apologise to the UAE people but also ask for support as we promise to do better in the future."
Coach bin Ali believes the team’s failure in Incheon is a result of a group of circumstances and refused to take sole ownership of the blame.
"We are missing five key players from our line-up including the experienced Abdulla Essa and our preparation wasn’t great because we played very few friendlies leading up to the Games," said bin Ali.
"We included some inexperienced and young players who are competing on the continental level for the first time, while some of the players came here without being physically ready.
"So there is more than one reason behind our poor results. We tried to give our best but we just couldn’t deal with the absence of our star players.
"I am upset at these results. We need to be realistic and study where we went wrong in a calm manner."
In swimming, UAE’s Mohammed Al Ghaferi (above) placed 19th in the 50m backstroke heats but was happy to clock 27.59 seconds, the second-fastest swim of his career and his quickest time in 18 months.
In cycling, Yousif Mirza (below) enters the second day of the Omnium race (made up of six events) today in fifth place having accumulated 15 points from the first three events yesterday. The 25-year-old Emirati came first in the 15km opening event, was sixth in the 4km Individual Pursuit, and was eighth in the Omnium Elimination race.
Today he will contest the 1km Time Trial, the Flying Lap 330m Time Trial and finally the 40km Points Race.
In football, Jordan beat India 2-0 to top Group G ahead of the UAE, who will now face Vietnam in the last 16 on Friday September 26.