Exclusive- Sheikha Maitha: Inspiring women to excel

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Pioneering women’s polo: Sheikha Maitha at the Desert Palm in Dubai yesterday.

Last year, when Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum put together a ladies-only polo tournament for the first time ever in the Middle East, she knew she was breaking new ground for women’s sport in the UAE. In a sport typically dominated by men here in the region, Sheikha Maitha sent a message loud and clear: that not only can women play polo, but they can play it well.

As the Ralph Lauren International Ladies Polo Tournament returned for a second edi­tion this past weekend, she wanted to bring a stronger field and showcase female polo in its fiercest form.

“Last year was an experiment and it was a dream for us to have an all-women’s tourna­ment here in the UAE,” Sheikha Maitha told Sport360° on the sidelines of the tournament at the Desert Palm.

“This year we came into it having really high expectations. The team, the organisers not only met it but exceeded expectation and that’s very hard to do, especially in a country where we pride ourselves on wanting to be No1. So the quality of players this year is amazing. We’ve had players I’ve never met before. The level of women’s sport… this is making history and I’m so honoured just to be part of it.”

A new introduction to the tournament this year was an All-Star game that pit the very best from all three teams present against one another. The result was the highest-ever rat­ed ladies polo match with each All-Star team combining to a total of a 27-goal handicap.

“It’s never happened before in history, it’s the first time to have a 27-goal for women. To happen here in Dubai, and have a charity attached to it as well – it’s a win-win for eve­ryone,” said Sheikha Maitha.

“For the sport it means a lot, for the social aspect of it – it couldn’t be more perfect.” Over the 11 months that have passed between the first and second editions of the tourna­ment, Sheikha Maitha has noticed a consid­erable increase in interest in polo from ladies in the UAE asking her how they could get involved with the sport.

“There was a huge, huge outpour. A lot of people wanted to play. We are at full capacity (at the club) really but yesterday I played in the Pink Polo and there was another local girl (Eliazia Al Muhairi), so she’s the first really after myself and it’s nice to see all the clubs pushing and supporting local talent,” she says.

“She’s fully supported by Ghantoot Polo, they’re pushing for her to play and she had a very good start. She did really well in her first match and that’s what we want to see. We want to see more amateurs to just try, don’t be afraid, just go ahead and do it. You have to start somewhere.”

For Sheikha Maitha, the start came a couple of years ago when she joined Ali Al Bawardi’s Desert Palm Polo Club. It was Al Bawardi who suggested she buy a polo pony and soon after, she was taking part in the Queen’s Cup and Gold Cup with his team.

Her rapid progress in the sport has impressed many, and it seems her long his­tory of competing in martial arts gave her the courage and drive to fully engage on the field and not shy away from rough contact.

Her right arm was covered in kinesio-tape yesterday, indicating an injury, but when asked whether she was hurt or not she said with a laugh: “Everyone’s hurt, it’s part and the nature of the sport.”

It is that kind of toughness that drove the top two players in the world, Nina Clarkin and Sunny Hale, to raise their hats to Sheikha Maitha’s talent.

“This is the first time I’ve met her personally. I’ve seen her play a lot in England in the high-goal and I really admire the way she plays, she’s a fantastic player and a real pioneer for the sport,” said Clarkin, who was making her tournament debut.

Hale added: “I think she’s playing really solid polo. She’s a very good competitor and she understands the game really well and has really good field vision. She comes with a really quiet mind, I think that comes from her martial arts background, that none of it fazes her so I think that makes such a great attribute to come as a polo player with that already. Her skill level is really good.”

From her side, Sheikha Maitha admits she can sense an improvement in her level over the past year.

She said: “I think I’ve matured a little bit. I started to understand the game more as a player. I had a very nice season here, and played with my peers. They helped me a lot. The patrons from the other teams, they’re more experienced and of course each compe­tition, on different fields, it’s a little bit differ­ent. They’re more specialised and it was an eye-opener. This year we are more prepared and just basically learning from our mistakes as we go along.”

As Clarkin mentioned, Sheikha Maitha has not gone unnoticed playing high-goal polo in the UK and it is an experience the Emirati has come to thoroughly enjoy. But she says she actually prefers playing at home where the level may be lower but where she is forced to dig deeper.

“I love it (in the UK) because you play with the best players in the world and to be part of that… it’s a lot smoother so the higher the level, the players can control what happens in the match more,” she explains.

“But having said that, more medium goal – what we play here – you have to carry your weight. So you’re asked to do more; you have to be more involved. You can’t just rely on your pros. So I think from an athlete’s side, I do prefer being involved more and do­ing more of the dirty work. I feel that’s part of what attracts me to the sport. It is full contact, it is rough, but it’s also a team sport and to feel that team chemistry, you can’t compare it to anything.”

Asked about what she hopes to achieve in the sport, Sheikha Maitha says without hesi­tation: “Like any athlete, (my goal is) the top. The top in this sport is the Open and every polo player’s dream is to play in the Open, that’s just a natural thing.” And is she close to that goal? “No, I’m very, very far but that hasn’t stopped me before,” she signs off. 

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National Olympic Committees boss Sheikh Ahmad urges USA to bid for 2024 Summer Games

Barny 8/11/2014
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Return to prominence: Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah urges United States to bid for the 2024 Summer Games.

The head of the world’s national Olympic committees urged the United States to bid for the 2024 Summer Games on Saturday, saying it would have a “good chance” of winning.

In a clear and potentially significant endorsement, the influential Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah said it was time for the United States to return to prominence in the Olympic movement.

The world’s biggest economy has not hosted a Summer Olympics since 1996, and it was burned by a bribery scandal over its successful bid to hold the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Sheikh Ahmad, the newly re-elected president of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) was speaking as the body wrapped up its general assembly in Bangkok and looked ahead to next year’s meeting in Washington.

“There’s an opening and I think this is the right time to come forward for 2024,” the Kuwaiti told reporters.

“I don’t know the city and I don’t know the other competitors and I’m not saying anything because I don’t know who’s showing interest.

“Suffice to say I think it’s the best time for the States to come back with a nice bid because 2024, maybe they will have a good chance.”

New York and Chicago made unsuccessful bids to host the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, respectively, and with Tokyo already picked for 2020, 2024 is the earliest the United States can hold a Summer Games.

At the meeting in Bangkok, warm relations were on show with the United States named national Olympic committee of the London 2012 Games at a gala awards night late on Friday.

Sheikh Ahmad said the hotel and venue for next year’s ANOC general assembly had already been picked out in Washington, and even details of the evening show and decorations.

“It will be very nice to be back there. I’m very happy to be back in the United States as one big family,” he said.

“For a long time we’re not there, I think this is a good opportunity to be back… I hope this will be the return of the United States to the sports movement.

“They have a sport movement of course, but you understand what I mean. Returning back after the whole Salt Lake City, and all the cities which didn’t have a chance to host an Olympic Games.

The sheikh added: “I think this is a good opportunity for the United States Olympic Committee, with their coordination and cooperation, to build their trust again.”

Sheikh Ahmad is beginning a new four-year term as head of ANOC, an umbrella grouping which he has revamped an re-energised with initiatives like its gala awards and forthcoming world beach games.

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Malaysian badminton player Lee Chong Wei believed to have failed doping test

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Humility and diligence: Badminton world number one Lee Chong Wei.

Malaysian officials on Saturday said an unnamed badminton player widely believed to be world number one Lee Chong Wei had failed a drugs test — but leapt to his defence, saying he would never take "shortcuts" to boost his career.

Reports of a failed drugs test by the long-time top player with a reputation for humility and diligence have shocked followers of what is one of Asia's most popular sports.

"I want to stress this is not a performance enhancing drug. It shouldn't affect (the public's) perception of badminton. This is not (sprinter) Ben Johnson or (cyclist) Lance Armstrong," sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin was quoted by The Star as saying.

His aide confirmed the comments.

Norza Zakaria, deputy president of the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM), told a press conference that a player had been temporarily suspended after his B-sample tested positive for the banned anti-inflammatory dexamethasone.

Lee reportedly flew to Norway to witness a second test this week at a laboratory there, following a positive result in an initial test in late August.

Norza said the player could not be named citing due process, with the Badminton World Federation set to hold a hearing.

The date for that hearing has not been set, he said.

Lee, who has been widely named by Malaysian media, faces a suspension of up to two years over the doping offence.

"I would like to inform you that we believe that this player is a very hard-working player and an exceptional individual," Norza said.

"We also believe that this player has never resorted to shortcuts in his pursuit of success."

Treatment for injury

Norza said officials were still probing how the substance could get into the shuttler's system.

He said the player had denied taking the drug on purpose but received treatment in July for a thigh injury.

Lee, 32, received stem cell injections for a thigh injury in July.

"From our side, we have some justification that the player is innocent," Norza said.

"The main priority is to assist the player… because he is a part of the BAM family. He has done a lot for the country."

Badminton is not used to doping scandals, with previous controversies mainly stemming up from judging inconsistencies and attempts to throw matches.

Lee reportedly failed the drug test after the semi-finals at the World Badminton Championships in Copenhagen, when he beat Denmark's Viktor Axelsen.

He lost to China's Chen Long in the finals in another heartbreak for the shuttler. Lee has been at or near the top of the rankings since 2008, but has so far failed to win a world title or Olympic gold.

He is Malaysia's most prominent male athlete and has been described by the prime minister as a national hero.

BAM general manager Kenny Goh, who accompanied the player to Norway, said Lee was under strain at present.

"Of course this player is going through some kind of stress," Goh said.

"It has been very stressful, and he needs all the support that he can get at the moment.”

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