When Saud Al Zaabi flew to Morocco four weeks ago for a high-altitude training camp in the city of Ifrane, his ambitions were relatively modest.
“I came to Morocco looking to set a new personal best and to think of a way to break the national record and to think of a way to make it onto the UAE national team,” the Emirati 800m specialist told Sport360.
Yet two weeks into his stay amidst the Atlas mountains, Al Zaabi found out he was going to achieve a dream far greater than anything he had ever imagined for himself – he was selected by the UAE Athletics Federation to go to the Olympic Games.
A last-minute decision saw the federation replace hammer thrower Mohamed Omar Al Khatib with middle distance runner Al Zaabi in the Olympic roster headed for Rio and the 27-year-old still cannot believe it.
“I was sleeping, when my coach woke me up and told me I’m going to the Olympics I thought he was pulling some sort of prank on me,” admits the Abu Dhabi Police employee.
“I’ve never contested a GCC championship, I’ve never contested an Arab championship, I’ve never contested an Asian championship, I’ve never contested a world championship, and now suddenly I’m going to the Olympics?
“I thought I was still sleeping when he told me. And until today I still can’t believe it. I keep asking my coach every day ‘are you sure I’m going?’
“Any person dreams of the Olympics, you don’t even dream of going, you just dream, dream. You dream of representing your country and I’m honoured to now be one of the people who will fly the flag for the UAE at the Olympics.
“Just going and sitting in the stands, that would be a dream, so imagine competing there.”
Al Zaabi’s track and field resume is mostly restricted to participating in police competitions. He has never represented the UAE in any non-police-related regional or international event but has somehow hit the Olympic jackpot is going to Rio.
With two Emiratis already qualified for the Olympics in athletics – Alia Saeed and Betlhem Belayneh – the country gets the privilege of an extra slot via wildcard. That invite was initially going to Al Khatib but the IAAF and IOC informed the UAE Athletics Federation that the hammer throw event is overcrowded and they preferred if a 1,500m runner would be entered instead, which is how Al Zaabi was thrown into the mix.
His coach Othmane El Chaibi accompanying him in the training camp knows Moroccan track legend Said Aouita, who was hired by the UAE National Olympic Committee last month as a technical expert.
Now that Al Zaabi is going to the Games, former Olympic champion Aouita is actually supervising his training and consulting with El Chaibi.
“Said Aouita and Hicham El Guerrouj are my idols. I always watch their videos online. They are unmatchable champions,” gushes Al Zaabi.
“I look at their videos and I see people who work with so much heart to achieve their dreams. So when you see that, it motivates you to do the same and try and follow in their footsteps. And now, somehow, Said Aouita is supervising my training, that is an unbelievable development.”
Al Zaabi says running for him is “hereditary”. His entire family runs, “from the youngest to the eldest”, but he is the only one who hung on to the sport and took a competitive interest in it.
“I started when I was a teenager, taking part in school races when I was 17,” he says.
“When I joined the police, I took part in races as part of my job and we had a couple of international police competitions in Saudi Arabia and the World Police Championship in Cyprus.
“I participated in a marathon in Hungary, also a police event. I improved with every competition and started posting some good timings. There’s an Arabic saying ‘for every hardworker there is a reward’, and that’s what happened with me.
“In Abu Dhabi, my job in the police is basically sport. There is a department in Abu Dhabi Police dedicated to sport, and I’m part of that.
“I’ve been the best athlete at Abu Dhabi Police for the past three years, mainly thanks to the support of General Mohammed Khalfan Al Rumaithi.
“He always encouraged me and he always dreamt that one of our team would reach the highest of heights.”
Although accustomed to competing over two laps, Al Zaabi is not worried about making the step up to the 1,500m for the Olympics.
“I’m an 800m runner but for my country, I can run any event it doesn’t matter. I have no problem running the 1,500m as long as I’m raising my country’s flag,” he insists.
He has made some tweaks to his training regimen, to work on the longer distance, and is confident he’ll be ready to compete.
Al Zaabi is aware the Olympics will be a huge step up for him but he sounds unfazed by the prospect of competing on world sport’s greatest stage.
He believes it will instill confidence in him and he’s already planning on building on his upcoming experience to advance his career.
“After Rio hopefully you’ll see me in the GCC, Arab and Asian championships. I will give my utmost to reach the top and fly my country’s flag high,” he says.
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Less than two weeks ahead of the Games’ kick-off in Brazil, the UAE National Olympic Committee (NOC) has finally announced the 13-strong squad that will be representing the Emirates at the Rio Olympics.
While this is not the biggest athletes’ delegation sent from the UAE to the Olympics, it is worth noting that 18 of the 28 that went to London four years ago were footballers. So in terms of participation in individual sports, this is the largest Emirati contingent headed to the Games since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Four of the 13 flying to Rio are females, with teenage swimmer Nada Al Bedwawi chosen as flag-bearer. Al Bedwawi is the youngest of the squad and will become the first-ever female swimmer to represent the UAE at the Olympics.
The NOC’s decision to choose the 18-year-old as the flag-bearer was questioned by an Arab reporter at the press conference, as he claimed she is not up for the “responsibility” but I personally believe it is a great move by sports officials in the country.
The UAE remains a relatively young nation when it comes to the Olympics, having competed for the first time as recently as the Los Angeles 1984 Games.
A quick look at the 13 participants heading to Rio shows that only two of them have competed at the Games before – veteran shooter Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, who will be contesting his fifth consecutive Olympics, and naturalised Ethiopian Betlhem Belayneh, who participated in London 2012.
The remaining 11 are all first-time Olympians, many of which are young, up-and-comers.
Considering Sheikh Saeed has carried the UAE flag in the opening ceremony on more than one occasion in his past appearances, it is a great initiative from the NOC to give that honour to a young female, who is blazing a trail for the Emirates in the swimming pool and can inspire other girls and boys from her generation to follow suit.
Being the first at something is never easy, and Al Bedwawi is taking on that role with great courage, so assuming she is not “up for the responsibility” to carry the UAE flag in Rio is a baseless and unacceptable verdict.
It’s refreshing to see such a progressive decision from the NOC and hopefully it will lay the ground for more such actions in the future.
It was disappointing however to attend the official NOC announcement of the UAE Olympics delegation at a press conference that had zero athletes in attendance.
There always seems to be a great disconnect between the NOC and the competitors and it was evident by their absence.
While some of the athletes have already flown to Rio, many of them are still in the UAE and it’s only natural that they face the media before they go off to what is the biggest sporting event on the planet. Shielding them from the media is doing them no favours as no professional athlete can survive in sport without dealing with journalists and TV cameras.
Another surprise at the announcement was the last-minute replacement of hammer thrower Mohamed Omar Al Khatib with middle distance runner Saud Al Zaabi. Al Khatib was initially meant to compete with a wildcard but the UAE Athletics Federation was told that the hammer throw event was overcrowded with entries and that the IOC and IAAF would rather give the Emirates an invite for a track event instead.
Al Zaabi was the lucky recipient of the wildcard, and even though he is a specialist in the 800m, he will be competing in the 1,500m, which is probably the event with more slots available for invitees.
While it will undoubtedly be an incredible opportunity and experience for Al Zaabi, it’s worth noting that he has never represented the UAE in a non-police-related international meet before – not at the GCC level, not at the Arab level and not at the Asian level.
Seeing him flung straight to the Olympics, to compete at a level that is so alien to him, is a prime example of why the wildcard system at the Games needs tweaking.
It is also an indication of how ill-prepared the federation was here, that when a slot opened for a middle distance runner, there were no athletes in the pipeline with any shred of experience ready to take that opportunity. Here’s hoping Al Zaabi makes the most out of it.