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.
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His exit from the sport as a player – at least for the moment – marks a weirdly fitting end for one of the most polarising figures to be on a diamond in recent memory.
In a day and age when future Hall of Famers like David Ortiz are taking victory laps, being showered with gifts and receiving tributes from opposing teams in their final season, A-Rod is going out in a nondescript manner, running completely counter to what his existence in our consciousness has been.
We’re not even getting a full week to say goodbye to Rodriguez after he announced in a press conference that Friday will be his final game in pinstripes.
Yankees fans should be at peace with A-Rod’s time in New York following a love-hate, hold-and-cold relationship since his arrival to the Bronx in 2004.
When he joined the most successful baseball franchise in history in 2004, Rodriguez was in the prime of his career and carrying daunting expectations of adding to the team’s then-cabinet of 26 World Series titles.
It took until 2009 for that goal to be completed and leading up to it, A-Rod struggled mightily when it mattered most: the post season.
But he and the Yankees finally broke through in 2009, with Rodriguez hitting at a torrid pace to help the club claim their first championship since 2000.
Then in 2013, after catching a 162-game suspension for the entire 2014 season for performance enhancing drugs as a result of the infamous Biogenesis scandal, A-Rod went from love-him-or-hate-him to universal villain.
Just when the dirt was being poured onto his grave though, he returned in 2015 and clubbed 33 home runs at age 39 to become one of the most surprising underdog stories and in the process, won back several Yankees fans.
Now that his time in Gotham is up, it’s fair to say A-Rod, for everything he did at the plate and on the field, was often taken for granted.
It’s also hard to imagine him breaching the moral high ground that Baseball Hall of Fame voters have taken up and getting a plaque in Cooperstown, which he and all the other tainted stars of the steroid era deserve. The Hall of Fame, after all, is about recognising history, not righteousness.
I doubt we’ve seen the last of A-Rod’s playing days though. We’re talking about a player who’s just four home runs shy of the 700 milestone and 18 bombs from tying Babe Ruth for third all-time.
If and when he puts on another uniform, we’ll pay attention, even if it’s out of the corner of our eye.
We’ve had strong opinions on him for too long not to.
Never mind Bolt v Gatlin or Le Clos v Phelps, Thomas Bach’s ego has ensured the pre-Olympic narrative has been firmly focused on his fued with an organisation trying to safeguard the very Games he governs.
Even amid Zika, the spiralling cost of the Games potentially exceeding $20 billion and serious concerns over water pollution, Bach’s personal war on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) still continues to hold sway.
The former fencer insisted on Saturday that the legacy of the Olympics has not been damaged by the Russian doping scandal and the subsequent chaos that has developed over athletes’ suitability, but Bach’s determination to go tit-for-tat with WADA has ensured it has.
Having been forced into the uncomfortable position of potentially issuing a blanket ban to Russia in light of the McLaren Report into state-sponsored doping, he simply devolved responsibility and allowed the numerous sporting federations that fall under the IOC umbrella to clear up the mess.
His accountability and willingness to face the media has been admirable but also ill-advised as it’s gradually appearing more personal than an act of duty or responsibility.
With each denial and attempt to blame shift blame onto WADA for the timing of the release of their report, are we any more convinced his friendship with Vladimir Putin in no way played a part in his decision-making? Of course not. But he just cannot let anything lie.
What’s become clear in the wake of that decision is that Bach doesn’t like being criticised. Whether it be because of personal sensitivity or because he knows deep down it was a wrong step and is doing everything he can to convince himself it wasn’t, his protests are beginning to wear a little thin and continue to cast a shadow over these Games, and the IOC itself.
The organisation has worked hard to restore its credibility post-Salt Lake City and while Bach’s actions, of course, don’t cross the same line as the bribery that went on in the late 1990s, it remains a embarrassing sideshow that is damaging the committee. But Bach knows he can get away with trying to have the last word after each response from Sir Craig Reedie. He knows he can play the loudmouth.
It’s the same reason Sepp Blatter and N Srinivasan clung onto power for so long – although, admittedly, it’s a little harsh to place Bach directly in the same company as that duo – because when the action starts and the noise dies down, the product they govern and ultimately represent triumphs all.
Once Michael Phelps steps into the pool, Usain Bolt lines up at the start line or Neymar strokes a goal in from 20 yards, all this noise will be largely forgotten.
There’s only so much scandal, controversy and poor governance the average sports fan can read about before emotions begin to change from anger to annoyance.
It’s a sad but simple fact that the potential economic and environmental impact will be nothing more than a footnote for the next two weeks if Usain Bolt seals the ‘Triple-triple’ of a trio of sprint golds across three Games, if Michael Phelps claims another remarkable victory or the ton of other fantastic stories and achievements that will emanate from Rio de Janeiro.
The essence of sport encourages good news, allowing Bach to briefly bask in the glow of the Olympic Spirit he has slightly diminished over the last few weeks.