The 2017 World Para athletics season kicks off on Monday March 20 with the 9th Fazaa International meeting – the Dubai Grand Prix, taking place over four days in the UAE.
More than 370 athletes from 40 countries – including 50 Rio 2016 medallists – will line up at the season opener which takes place at the Dubai Club for the Disabled.
The event is the first of a series of nine Grand Prix taking place around the world this year as preparations build up for the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in July.
Here is a guide to the main events to watch this week in the Emirates:
Men’s 100m T33
Kuwait’s Paralympic champion Ahmad Al Mutairi won his country’s first gold medal since the Athens 2004 Games when he took victory in the men’s 100m T33 at Rio 2016. The 22-year-old, who also won the 2015 world title, will be tough competition for the likes of Great Britain’s Paralympic bronze medallist Andrew Small and Germany’s Denis Schmitz.
Men’s 200m T11
Namibia’s Ananais Shikongo has shown terrific form over the last 18 months, winning his first Paralympic title last year in 22.44 – just 0.03 seconds outside David Brown of the USA’s 2014 world record. Shikongo has high hopes for this year’s World Championships and if his impressive form continues he will undoubtedly be one to watch.
Men’s 800m T34
Tunisia’s reigning world champion and world record holder Walid Ktila goes head-to-head with newly crowned Paralympic champion and local star Mohamed Al Hammadi of the UAE. Their contest will provide a fascinating taste of what is to come for the rest of the year. Ktila finished Doha 2015 at the top of the individual medals table with four golds; last year however Al Hammadi showed that his rival is not invincible.
Men’s 1,500m T13
Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka hit the headlines at Rio 2016 when he clinched 1,500m T13 gold with a new world record 3:48.29. In fact the top four finishers were all faster than the time it took for Matthew Centrowitz to win the Olympic title weeks earlier. Baka lines up against a field including his twin brother Fouad who finished fourth in Rio.
Men’s 5,000m T54
Swiss star Marcel Hug takes on six distances in Dubai, from 100m through to 5,000m. He’s up against a talented field including the man who beat him to first place at February’s Tokyo marathon, Sho Watanabe of Japan. Watch out too for Watanabe’s countrymen, Masayuki Higuchi and Tomoki Suzuki.
Men’s shot put F33
All three medallists from Rio 2016 line up in Dubai: Germany’s Daniel Scheil, Algeria’s Kamel Kardjena and Saudi Arabia’s Hani Alnakhli won gold, silver and bronze respectively in Brazil. The battle for supremacy in 2017 – and the chase for the world title – begins here.
Women’s 100m T11
Brazil’s former Paralympic champion Terezinha Guilhermina and Great Britain’s newly crowned champion Libby Clegg race over 100m and 200m in the UAE. Clegg, who turns 27 days after the Grand Prix, broke Guilhermina’s world record last year and will be determined to show that she is now queen of the track in the T11 sprints.
Women’s 100m T38
Sophie Hahn is one of a number of talented Brits making the journey to the Middle East. The 20-year-old is the reigning world and Paralympic champion over 100m and will start as favourite. Watch out for her teammate Kadeena Cox, winner of the 400m T38 at Rio 2016.
Women’s discus F57
Algeria’s Nassima Saifi and Ireland’s Orla Barry won gold and silver respectively at the Rio Games; both take to the field in Dubai. Saifi is the reigning world champion and world record holder and one of a number of talented Algerians making the trip to the UAE – former world and Paralympic champion Safia Djelal also starts.
Women’s shot put F33
Another of Algeria’s Paralympic gold medallists, Asmahan Boudjadar, will be out to make her mark in Dubai a year after she broke the javelin F33 world record and set a new African shot put F33 record at the same event. Local hopes will rest with the UAE’s Paralympic bronze medallist Sara Al Senaani.
UAE’s Siham Al Rashidi has set her sights on claiming a medal at the 9th Fazza Para-Athletics Championships – Dubai 2017 World Para Athletics Grand Prix although she acknowledges it won’t be easy given the strength of field.
The 35-year-old has made significant progress since taking up javelin, discus and javelin in 2009 after impressing in elite and Asian competitions. Her last major competition – the Paralympics in Rio, saw her finish sixth in the discus throw F57 with a 25.69m effort, just 1cm short of her personal best.
She has now qualified for July’s World Para Athletics Championships in London and while it’s still a few months away, she admits finishing on the podium at the Dubai Club for the Disabled, would give her a lot of confidence considering it’s one of the nine rounds on the Grand Prix calendar.
“I want to win a medal here in my own country,” she said who will compete in the discus F57 classification when the competition gets under way from March 20.
“I want to reach my best in my event. I have been training hard for this competition and hopefully I will be among the medalists.
“For the competition to be held here is very good and it gives us an opportunity to act as ambassadors for the UAE. We want to show how good the country is and show the visiting athletes our culture, traditions and heritage.
“It also gives us a chance to prepare for the World Championships which is very important for me.”
The 2014 Asian bronze medalist is among a strong 24-person squad named by the UAE officials which also includes her Dubai Club for the Disabled team-mate Abbad Khalid.
The discus thrower will be competing in the F37 event and is looking forward to testing himself against the best.
“I’m preparing myself to be in the best possible shape for London and I want to give a good performance,” he said. “My handicap isn’t easy but I just love competing and I will try my best.”
This year’s competition will see almost 400 athletes from 42 countries in action.
Dubai Club for the Disabled chairman Thani Juma Berregad, said: “We are attracting countries like Macedonia, Gambia and Fiji to this competition and means that we are not only attracting the nations who always come to Dubai but also the newcomers which is very good for us.”
Adastra girls’ team manager Jess Prelle says she’s been taken by surprise that her side are now one win away from winning a trip to Manchester United next month.
Elena Espinosa’s winner in the semi-final sealed a 1-0 victory against Abu Dhabi Country Club at the weekend and will now face familiar foes Go Pro in the DU Challenge Final on Saturday.
As well as the overall trophy up for grabs, the winners will also travel to north west England next month for three days and not only enjoy a training clinic with the 20-time English Premier League champions but also watch the Red Devils play live at Old Trafford.
For Adastra, part of the IFA Football Academy, not only have they had to beat strong sides but also play against much older players with their squad aged between 13-16 years of age.
“We have a lot of 15 and 16-year-olds and thought we would give it a try (on entering) and I’m pretty astonished we’ve reached this far,” said Prelle.
“I knew we would have a good chance of reaching far but it was only in the semis, that we could actually win the tournament.”
Speaking on the team’s next opponents Go Pro, she said: “We’ve played them a few times and the girls are excited and nervous at the same time. Whoever wins, it will be a good competitive and high quality game of football.”