Rio 2016: Kuwaitis discuss pain of not representing country

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Ready for Games debut: Abbas Al Qali.

Ask any Olympian what they consider to be one of the greatest highlights of their career and they will tell you it is representing their country on the grandest stage.

Carrying their home flag as they march around a packed stadium alongside some of the best athletes on the planet is a moment any Olympian cherishes forever and it is, unfortunately, one Abbas Al Qali and his fellow Kuwaitis have been robbed of.

With Kuwait suspended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over government interference in sport, the nine Kuwaiti athletes competing in Rio this month – including swimmer Al Qali – will not be allowed to fly their home nation’s flag.

They have been cleared to compete but as Independent Olympic Athletes, marching under the Olympic flag and listening to the Olympic anthem should they win a gold medal.

A team of six shooters, headlined by Kuwait’s only Olympic medallist, two-time bronze winner, Fehaid Al Deehani, join swimmers Al Qali and Faye Sultan in Rio, along with fencer Abdulaziz Al Shatti.

A power struggle between Kuwait’s sports ministry and Olympic committee (KOC) has resulted in the country’s second suspension in five years but while a ban was lifted right before the London 2012 Olympics, allowing Kuwaiti athletes to represent their nation, things have not gone that way this time around.

Even worse, it appears the Kuwait sports ministry – who attempted to sue the IOC for $1.3bn in damages but saw the case thrown out on Wednesday – is discouraging Kuwaitis from participating in the Olympics.

“It is true. I did get some negative responses from some people but those people don’t understand what I went through the past 10 years of training,” Al Qali told Sport360° in a phone interview ahead of the Rio Games.

“They don’t understand waking up at 5:30 in the morning every day to go to practice, work your a** off to achieve what they can’t achieve.

“They can just criticise you for what you do. I have no respect for anyone who disagreed for any Kuwaiti to go and represent their country or at least represent themselves in the Olympics.”

Defiant: Al Qali.

Defiant: Al Qali.

Some athletes worry that their decision to defy the government and compete in Rio could have negative ramifications on them in the future but Al Qali is not concerned.

“There is always something that can backfire of course but I’m not worrying about this right now because I’m trying to be focused for the Olympics and I’m trying to set one goal at a time,” said the 23-year-old.

“It’s not my problem that they got the country suspended. I’m not going to pay the price for that.”

With so much uncertainty around the KOC’s fate in the past few months, many athletes found out they would be allowed to go to Rio less than a month ahead of the Olympics.

Faye Sultan, Kuwait’s first-ever female Olympic swimmer is one such example.

“I found out two weeks ago that I was going to the Olympics under the IOC flag for sure,” said Sultan, who spent the past four years swimming for Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

“But before that I was kind of kept out of the loop, I wasn’t entirely certain whether I was going and who I’d be representing.

“It’s always been a little bit frustrating.”

Sultan made waves when she became her country’s first female swimmer at the Games in London 2012. She remembers the rush she felt while representing Kuwait and admits not being able to do so when she sets foot at the Maracana stadium on Friday is “disheartening”.

“I think it 100 per cent matters – there’s so much pride and joy that comes with representing your country and it’s being taken away. It’s something you dream about,” said the 21-year-old.

“There’s a lot of hype around Olympic athletes from other countries, they’re like the pride and joy of their country and it really just hurts…

“I haven’t been cheering for or swimming for the Olympic Committee or the Olympic flag, I’ve been swimming for Kuwait so it’s something that is disheartening.

“But I think it’s still good to go and still good to use it as a platform perhaps. And at the end of the day we are still Kuwaiti, we’re still going and it’s still an honour to be able to compete at the Olympics. I just would have preferred it to be under different circumstances.”

Trailblazer: Faye Sultan.

Trailblazer: Faye Sultan.

Does she feel that by going, it can raise awareness of the issue and perhaps drive the government to take the necessary actions to overturn the ban?

“I’d like to think that the things we do will have an impact and I’m hoping that by going it’s going to shed light on the issue in Kuwait and hopefully inspire them to change their ways because at the end of the day the IOC suspended Kuwait for their reasons and it ended up hurting the individual athletes that don’t have anything to do with the circumstances,” she explained.

“It feels like there’s so many obstacles I’ve had to overcome and this is kind of like another one – even though it’s not, because I’m still going, but no one needs this, you know?”

Unlike Sultan, Al Qali is making his Olympic debut. His road to Rio was long and tough.

“I’ve been trying to get an Olympic qualifying time since the World Championships in Kazan last year and I failed 13 times to get my cut and I finally got it on my 14th try,” explains Al Qali, who spent the past four years swimming for University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

He clinched his spot in Rio in a meet at his rival school, Auburn University, in the Richard Quick Invitational in June, clocking 54.16 seconds in the 100m butterfly to beat the B-standard qualifying time of 54.19.

During the 10 months he spent trying to qualify, he financed all his travel to the various meets himself, paying for his training, equipment, coaching and living expenses. The only thing the KOC is contributing is his flight to Rio.

“Money comes and goes but the glory will last forever,” he says.

Hailing from an athletic family, Al Qali was introduced to swimming thanks his brother Zain, who is five years his senior. He grew up in Kuwait and moved to the United States when he was 18 to go to college.

He tried to qualify for London but couldn’t make it and now that he’s made it to Rio, he has set some clear targets for himself.

“Hopefully I can go a best time and a new Kuwaiti record. I want to be the first Kuwaiti to break 54 seconds in the 100m butterfly. I feel like that would be an achievement for me and Kuwait,” he says.

Both Al Qali and Sultan feel their college swimming career has given them fresh perspective on their sport. Swimming no longer felt like an individual sport when they competed for their college teams and it gave them the drive to strive for more.

For Sultan, the 50m freestyle in Rio could potentially end up being her final competitive race, although having just graduated in May, she is still undecided on what her next move will be.

“My mentality for this race is that it (might be) my last race as a swimmer and my last race for Kuwait – in my head I’m still swimming for Kuwait – and I’m just going to give it my best, I’m going to swim with a lot of heart and I hope that I can break 27 seconds, that’s my goal,” she says.

Since her historic appearance in London, does Sultan feel there’s been an increased interest from young girls to take up swimming?

“It did help raise swimming awareness and sports awareness in Kuwait,” she responds.

“Overall there’s a general fitness craze that’s going on in Kuwait – and I don’t attribute this to myself – that wasn’t around when I was growing up.

“Me waking up at like 4:30 to go to practice at 5:00 was considered crazy. But people are definitely more invested in health and sport and lifestyle and in terms of swimming I have noticed that there are more girls swimming in Kuwait.

“Hopefully they’ll continue and will be swimming for Kuwait some day.”

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