Just weeks out from the Rio Olympics, Yousif Mirza recalls the biggest challenge he’s faced in his cycling career.
It occurred on the night of May 17, 2015, the first day of Mirza’s rest period off his bicycle. It also happened to be the day after he helped Al Nasr claim the gold medal at the President’s Cup.
Mirza suffered a motorcycle accident in Jumeirah, resulting in broken bones in his legs and shoulder and four ensuing surgeries.
At the time of the crash, the Emirati had already qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics, but in the immediate aftermath of the accident, he had to come to grips with a heartbreaking reality: his dream of representing his country on the grandest stage could be finished before it even began.
“I thought my career was over,” said the 27-year-old.
Mirza soon realised he had survived a scare. His doctor said he could continue cycling, but would need six months to recover before getting on two wheels again.
That wasn’t good enough for Mirza. Instead, he travelled to Germany to get his body and surgeries checked and was cleared to return much sooner.
Twenty eight days after the crash, Mirza was back on his bike and raced for the first time since at the Nad Al Sheba Ramadan Tournament on July 3.
“It was something in my head,” Mirza said. “When you think positive, everything will become easier for you.
“I fought and fought and trained hard, doubling what I was training before. So I came back feeling better than before and in-shape.”
Mirza cleared his tallest hurdle yet, but while he’s overjoyed to be heading to his first Olympics this summer to compete in the men’s road race, he admits the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders have been weighing on him.
“Here in the UAE, cycling is new. Everybody thinks reaching the Olympics is easy. It’s not,” he said.
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“For me, I want to give the message that I’m at the highest level in cycling.
“Everyone thinks you can win or do something, but I’m going thinking that I have to do my best. I get pressure from people.”
The spotlight on Mirza is magnified thanks to his lone standing atop the sport in the UAE.
He’s won the National Championships UAE four times and earned second in the 2015 Asian Cycling Championships, which sealed his qualification for the Olympics.
Mirza will be the first UAE cyclist to compete in the Games since Ali Sayed Darwish at Atlanta 1996, but he’s eager to see more riders qualify from the emirates in the coming years.
“I’m 27 years old, so I can give to cycling maybe five, six, seven years more. If not me, there will be others, the new generation,” Mirza said. “So I will support all as much as I can to qualify more riders from the UAE for the next Olympics.
“Everything right now is just about one rider in the UAE, Yousif Mirza. But it’s not only me. The team has helped me to reach there. I didn’t work alone.
“Cycling is not an individual sport, it’s more than that.”
To help develop more local cyclists, as well as prepare for Rio, Mirza has assumed a leading role for Al Nasr Pro Cycling Team, a newly-formed squad which was set up earlier this year.
Since its formation, Mirza and his team-mates have participated in the Dubai Tour and races across Europe, in nations like Portugal and Azerbaijan, to increase their exposure.
“We’re getting better and better. That team has helped me in a lot of ways. It’s a good project for UAE cycling,” Mirza said.
“The first goal for this team is to improve local riders. We don’t want professional riders from outside and that’s it. There’s no point to that. If we don’t improve our riders, the project is not correct. That’s what I think.
“Our goal with this team is to improve UAE riders, with the help of coaches, staff and professional riders. It’s like a circle.”
The plan is a long-term one, but Mirza is already in position to showcase the UAE’s talent this summer.
He said: “I will try my best to show the level of our cycling.”
Sport360 will be profiling one UAE-based Olympian each week as part of our build-up to Rio 2016.
The UAE received a huge boost in their Olympic ambitions after their female weightlifting team were awarded one spot for the Rio Games by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).
The decision came after the IWF Executive Meeting, where the board stripped Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Korea, Russia of two quotas, while and Belarus, Romania, and Uzbekistan will each have one representative in Brazil, following multiple doping cases.
Those 13 quota places and six unallocated spots saw the UAE clinch one berth, subject to approval by the International Olympic Committee, in the women’s weightlifting competition.
It is the latest highlight for the female’s game in this country after the IWF distributed spots based on ranking, universality and team efforts.
Emirates Weightlifting Federation (EWF) officials will now be tasked with deciding which of the seven athletes will travel to Rio de Janeiro in August.
EWF secretary general Faisal Al Hammadi has confirmed meetings will take place soon and the performances in April’s Asian Championships in Uzbekistan will be assessed before making a final decision.
One person who did travel to Tashkent for that tournament was Amna Al Haddad. The 26-year-old was ecstatic to hear that one female Emirati will be flying the UAE flag high in Brazil.
“It’s very interesting to see that women in this sport are qualifying for the Olympics,” she said. “It shows that there are really great women athletes in the UAE who deserve to have the spotlight on their achievements.”
Al Haddad is fully aware that competition for that lone spot will be tight and whether she does go or not, she insists every member of that group is an “Olympian”.
“The way I see it is, it was a team effort to compete in the Asian Championships. It doesn’t matter who gets to the Olympics and who does not,” she said.
“We are all Olympians because without us that one person would not be going there. Each one of us has contributed in its own way in qualifying for the Olympics. I’m very proud and happy because this is a historic moment for our country.”
It will be the second consecutive time that the UAE will have a female weightlifter in the global showpiece event after Khadija Mohammad competed at London 2012.
Al Hammadi welcomed the IWF announcement and insists it proves the women’s game is on the right track.
“We are happy as weightlifting is a relatively new sport in the UAE as people have only been doing this sport for eight years now and to qualify for the Olympics in Rio is a really big achievement for us and overall in the UAE,” he told Sport360 from the Junior World Championships in Georgia.
“We are really proud of the team and the athletes what they have done during this period. This is the second time we have qualified for the Olympics and it’s fantastic to be competing again in Rio De Janeiro.”
Despite desperate Russian attempts to have the ban lifted before the Rio Olympics in August, the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) 27-strong council decided Russia had not met the criteria for reinstatement.
The All-Russia Athletics Federation was banned in November following an 11-month investigation by an independent commission chaired by former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound.
Russia will now take its case to an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne on Tuesday, with the further possibility of challenges against an Olympic ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The meeting in Vienna overran by nearly an hour but the main discussion point was not whether or not to lift the ban: it was how a ban would be enforced.
When the IAAF suspended the Russian federation it set up a task force, led by Norwegian anti-doping expert Rune Andersen, to assess the progress made in Russia to clean up its act, with 44 different criteria.
The IAAF unanimously decided to uphold the ban on Russia’s track & field athletes from the Rio Olympics https://t.co/A29OHPgzqD— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) June 17, 2016
Those criteria were clearly not met, as a damning WADA report confirmed on Wednesday. That update painted a picture of a sports system that might take years, not seven months, to rebuild.
So in some ways, this was an easy decision for the council to take, particularly when you consider its own contribution to the scandal and the questions about IAAF president Lord Coe’s ability, and right, to lead the organisation.
But the Russian establishment has spent the last few months ratcheting up the pressure on the IAAF, repeatedly listing the steps it has taken to remedy its problems and stating again and again that the ban will unfairly punish innocent athletes.
This view is known to be more sympathetically received by the IOC, which is loath to return to the era of boycotts and absent stars – and does not want to upset a country that hosts more major events than any other right now.
That was once a view shared by some senior athletics bosses, too, but opinions have hardened in recent weeks as bleak reports emerged from Andersen’s task force and fresh scandals emerged about Russian sport.
The foremost of those is the subject of a second WADA-funded independent investigation, namely did Russia effectively sabotage the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi with a state-sponsored doping programme?
That inquiry is led by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, who also sat on Pound’s 2015 inquiry, and its report will go to the IOC by July 15.
If it is at conclusive as the first report, Russia could be looking at a complete Olympic ban, and not just one for its track and field team.
In the meantime, the argument moves to the IOC, with Russia hopeful that it will allow athletes who have passed numerous tests, around the world, with no suspicion of cheating, to compete in Rio.
Whether that is in neutral colours, under an IOC flag, or in Russian kit is completely unclear, as we are already in uncharted territory with a national ban for doping.
Russia’s Ministry of Sport issued a statement which read: “We are extremely disappointed by the IAAF’s decision to uphold the ban on all of our track and field athletes, creating the unprecedented situation of a whole nation’s track and field athletes being banned from the Olympics.
“Clean athletes’ dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behaviour of other athletes and officials. They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted.
“We have done everything possible since the ban was first imposed to regain the trust of the international community. We have rebuilt our anti-doping institutions which are being led by respected international experts.
“Our athletes are being tested by the UK’s anti-doping agency, UKAD, and every one of them is undergoing a minimum of three tests in addition to the usual requirements. We have nothing to hide and feel we had met the IAAF’s conditions for re-entry.
“We now appeal to the members of the International Olympic Committee to not only consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on their dreams and the people of Russia, but also that the Olympics themselves will be diminished by their absence.
“The Games are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together.”