The world’s best athletes reconvene this week in Dubai, for the first time since the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and Emirati gold medallist Mohammed Al Hammadi knows he will have a target on his back following his heroics in Brazil last summer.
The Dubai World Para Athletics Grand Prix – also known as the 9th Fazaa International meeting – kicks off the 2017 nine-stop grands prix season with the action commencing on Monday at the Dubai Club for the Disabled and concluding on Thursday March 23.
More than 370 athletes from 40 countries – including 50 Rio 2016 medallists – will line up at the season opener with reigning T34 800m Paralympic champion, Al Hammadi headlining the UAE squad.
The 31-year-old turned the tables on his long-time rival Walid Ktila of Tunisia at the Games in Brazil by beating him for the first time to claim 800m gold, setting a new Paralympic record in the process.
The Sharjah-native is expected to take part in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m events this week in Dubai, where he’ll be facing off with Ktila – a three-time Paralympic gold medallist, world champion and world record holder – for the first time since Rio.
“The Dubai Grand Prix is a great competition for athletes, it keeps getting better each year,” Al Hammadi told Sport360.
“Maybe less people will be competing here this year because it’s only a few months after the Rio Paralympics, which ended ath the end of September. So to start training again right away after the Games is sometimes tough.
“Once one Paralympics is over, you start planning for the next four years. I’m working for a long-term goal and you start building your form once again step by step.”
Al Hammadi, like the rest of the field, is preparing for the upcoming World Championships, taking place in London from July 14-23.
“London will be the real test for me, it is where I can see how I measure up against the competition,” explained Al Hammadi.
“The Sharjah Sports Council is sponsoring me until Tokyo 2020. They will cover all my camps, my needs, my wheelchair, and that makes me really happy.
“The secretary general came to me before racing the final in Rio and told me ‘I will be supporting you until 2020’. That gave me huge motivation to go out there and get the gold.”
Al Hammadi is the country’s first Paralympic gold medallist in athletics and he’s hoping his success can spur others to follow suit.
Emirati Paralympic bronze medallist Sara Al Senaani will take part in the women’s F33 shot put action.
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.”