Humaid Al Derei is a man whose Olympic mission in London goes beyond winning and losing.
The 21-year-old UAE judoka is a highly-competitive animal, of course, but he also buys into the sport he loves.
Judo, he says, is all about honour. After early success regionally – he won silver at the Arab Games in Egypt in 2005 – Al Derei set his heart on a career in judo.
Fuelled by a training camp in the Far East, his passion is obvious as explains his approach in the Judo Federation Hall in Abu Dhabi.
“Judo taught me many things. After my camp in Japan, I got more attached to it as well,” he said. “I love it because it’s an Olympic sport, and the word Olympic for me doesn’t just mean that it’s featured in the Games.
"It means it ensures the safety of the fighter which is why they prefer taekwondo to karate at the Olympics. They care about the safety and health of a competitor before they pay attention to results. Judo is about honour.”
It’s this philosophy that makes it easy to understand why Al Derei’s idol is former Egyptian Olympic silver medallist and current international judo judge, Mohamed Rashwan – a man renowned for his take on fair play.
Rashwan settled for second place in the Los Angeles 1984 Games because he refused to attack the injured right leg of his Japanese opponent, Yasuhiro Yamashita.
“I tell you, with his style it was difficult for him to attack the other leg, but he still didn’t target the injured one,” said Al Derei, who can also speak Russian.
“He lost that match and settled for the silver, but that day he gained the respect of the Japanese.
“When they asked him why he didn’t attack the injured side he said ‘my religion, my morals and my country did not teach me to do something like that so I play with honour and win with honour’.
“So for me, he is my idol and I hope to see more people like him.
“Yes people remember winners and gold medallists, but look at [Diego] Maradona and Pele.
“Pele is the one on a higher level because he had morals and values.”
The Abu Dhabi native flew to Belarus for an intensive boot camp as part of his preparations and he admits it was tough.
He said: “When I was in Belarus, I have to say I didn’t feel that my level was too far from the other judokas there. Perhaps their attacking skills are superior. And maybe that’s where I suffered the most in my first week of boot camp, but I worked on my recovering and my attack.
“Like they always say ‘the best way to defend is to attack and that’s whay I worked hard on my attack in the past couple of months, and I’ve improved a lot.”
The way Khadija Mohammed – the Gulf region’s first ever female weightlifter – was chosen to represent the UAE at the London 2012 Games epitomises the Olympic spirit.
The 17-year-old Emirati was part of a six-strong weightlifting team that managed to clinch one individual qualifying spot at the London 2012 Olympics, after a surprise performance at the Asian Championships in Korea last May.
It was a team effort that earned the UAE a place in London, but only one girl could go. The weightlifting officials did not want to create a competition between the six lifters to choose the one who would make history for the Gulf. Instead they asked the girls to make the choice for them.
“We created a very united team, they are like one body,” the UAE Weightlifting Federation president Sultan bin Mejren, proudly told Sport360°. “Especially the coach (Najwan Al Zawawi), she’s with them like a sister, like a friend, like a mother, like everything and they are always together not in only in training. When they are out they are always together.
“I gave them a message as the president ‘give me your proposal and we’ll share it with the technical team and we the board will make the final decision’. They said ‘anyone of us will represent us, so you pick and we are happy’.
“So the coach suggested two or three names to us, we discussed it to pick the person who is proudly accepted by all of them. So that’s how the selection was made. This is a historic moment for the UAE. And Khadija got the history but with the blessing of all of them.
“I’m glad she is going. Khadija has many brilliant qualities. She is very calm but once she is on that stage she is very competitive. She is extremely polite and a great reflection of the Emirati woman.”
The fact that Mohammed will be competing in London is already a fantastic story about defying the odds. Female weightlifting is only a couple of years old in the UAE and the team that competed in the qualifying event in Korea included competitors as young as 14 years of age.
Making the impossible possible
They stole the show with their fifth-place finish there but their Egyptian coach Al Zawawi – a former Olympian herself – explains the real miracle was starting up the female weightlifting program to begin with. “Introducing the idea of having Emirati women compete in weightlifting was unheard of before and it was extremely difficult at first,” says Al Zawawi.
“I tried a lot, and it was not accepted at all by parents at first. They found it outrageous. I tried and I didn’t give up even though the whole federation had no hope of having one single girl competing.
“Since we started in 2009 until now, no one would’ve believed that we could qualify to the Olympics but I had so much determination in me and I planted that feeling in each one of the girls. They knew it was difficult but it wasn’t impossible.”
Already a winner
Bin Mejren also recalls how it all began and revealed that they’ve come this far without owning one single facility for the girls to train in. He considers Mohammed’s participation an Olympic medal in itself, especially because of the humble beginnings the sport came out from in the UAE.
He says: “We started training in a room in a school 10m x 5m, and we had students who shared with us that room. We tried to connect with a maximum possible athletes who have a good body for weightlifting. From that stage, in the first year we were collecting the right people, and we kept moving from one facility to another until we ended up in the Olympic Games.”
Hoping to do her country proud
No one is expecting Mohammed to medal, or even to come close to that, but she vows to stick to the sport irrespective of her results in London and just wants to represent the UAE the best way possible.
“I honestly never thought about the Olympics before because it was beyond my wildest dreams but now that it’s happening, I can’t wait,” says Mohammed, who wants to pursuing military studies in university when she’s done with high school.
“I’m more happy and excited than I am nervous and I’m going there to make my country proud. I really dream of getting a medal but above all is to make my coach and country happy. I want to continue in this sport regardless of my result in London.”