Since making its Summer Games debut in Los Angeles 1984, the UAE has been taking small steps forward every four years in its quest to build an Olympic legacy.
Eight track and field athletes represented the country in LA 32 years ago, and while participation numbers oscillated from one Olympics to another, Emiratis have been taking part in a wider range of sports with each appearance.
On Friday, 13 competitors from six different sporting disciplines will be marching around the Maracana stadium, flying the flag for the UAE, including shooters, runners, swimmers, judokas, a weightlifter and a cyclist.
Shooting continues to be one of the most popular and successful Olympic sports which is steeped in the UAE’s tradition.
The nation’s sole Olympic medal came from shooter Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who took double trap gold in Athens 2004.
In London 2012, Sheikh Ahmed coached Great Britain’s Peter Wilson to Olympic gold. In his quest to help create yet another champion, Sheikh Ahmed is working with UAE’s Khaled Al Kaabi, who is one of three shooters in action in Rio this month, alongside Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum and Saif bin Futtais.
The 31-year-old Al Kaabi teamed up with Sheikh Ahmed less than three years ago and is already bearing the fruits of their partnership.
He initially was targeting the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo to make his Games debut, but an impressive gold medal showing at the Asia Olympic Qualifying Competition in January in New Delhi saw Al Kaabi seal one of just two remaining qualifying spots for Rio and suddenly found himself ahead of schedule.
Leaving a lasting legacy: Sheikh Ahmed.
“I feel proud that I have reached this level within three years of shooting with the UAE team, and of course I feel I am so close to achieving my dream,” Al Kaabi told Sport360°. “I think the qualification process was harder for me than the Olympics itself because when I won the gold medal in New Delhi, it was the last two quota places for Rio, so the pressure was high because if I hadn’t won, I would have had to wait for another four years.
“I was not so confident that I would qualify because all the best shooters were competing with me.”
A fan of hunting and shooting since he was a kid, Al Kaabi started training in the sport when a new shooting club popped up in Al Ain. He says he considers Sheikh Ahmed as his greatest inspiration and while he’s hoping to bring out his best in Rio, Al Kaabi feels a podium will be more attainable in Tokyo 2020.
In skeet shooting, Sheikh Saeed will be making his fifth consecutive appearance at the Olympics while Bin Futtais is making his debut.
On the track, Ethiopian-born runners Alia Saeed and Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh will be carrying the UAE’s hopes, with the former contesting the 10,000m and the latter competing in the 1,500m.
Saeed has stepped up in recent years, winning Asian Games and Asian Championships gold in the 10,00m and she has run the 11th-fastest time of the year so far over that distance.
Belayneh and Saeed are joined by middle distance runner Saud Al Zaabi, who will be representing the UAE in an international meet for the first time in his career.
Two swimmers, Nada Al Bedwawi and Yaaqoob Al Saadi are competing via wildcard entries while Yousif Mirza will become the first Emirati to take part in a road race at the Olympics.
Medal hopeful: Sergiu Toma.
Three Moldovan-born judokas, Sergiu Toma, Victor Scvortov and Ivan Remarenco, will compete for the UAE in Rio. Toma is perhaps the nation’s biggest chance of a medal as he heads to Brazil as a top-10 judoka in the -81kg class.
“Since 2013, since after the last Olympic Games this has been the strategy of the federation,” said general secretary of the UAE Wrestling, Judo and Kickboxing Federation, Naser Al Tamimi, of naturalising Eastern European judokas.
“More than 60 judokas have changed nationality after London 2012. Europeans and Asians, United States. The rules of the International Judo Federation and the IOC have allowed for this as long as the two federations agree. It is becoming one of the biggest sports in the world and a lot of countries have too many judokas. There is often only one athlete who gets the chance to go to the Olympics.
“Many countries have more than one judoka in a category, so there is only a chance for them to win if they go to other countries. This is what is happening. It’s a good chance for the athletes and it’s a good idea from the IOC.”
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.
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.
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.”
There are plenty of amazing athletes in action in Rio but spare a thought for some stellar names who haven’t made the trip for this summer’s Olympics.
Here we look at eight stars who will be missed.
KENENISA BEKELE (ETH)
The three-time Olympic champion and world record holder missed out on a spot in Ethiopia’s four-man marathon team because he did not meet qualification criteria set by his federation due to an injury-enforced absence of almost 12 months.
The world record holder and three-time Olympic medallist was unable to qualify for the 50 free getting beaten in Brazil’s Olympic Trials. It spelt heartbreak for the most successful Brazilian swimmer in history, who is unable to compete at his home Games.
IHAB ABDELRAHMAN (EGY)
The Egyptian world championship silver medallist in javelinhas been the one to watch in his event all year, winning two stops of the Diamond League. But he found out less than two weeks ahead of Rio that he failed a doping test and is suspended from action.
YELENA ISINBAYEVA (RUS)
One of the marquee names absent due to the ban on Russia’s track and field athletes, Isinbayeva was hoping to capture a fourth consecutive medal in pole vault to go with the two golds and one bronze she won in Athens, Beijing and London.
MARIA SHARAPOVA (RUS) and ROGER FEDERER (SUI)
The two singles silver medallists from London 2012 are not competing in Rio with Sharapova serving a doping suspension and Federer out rehabbing his injured knee.
JASON DAY (AUS)
The world No1 golfer has snubbed the Rio Olympics citing the Zika virus as his reason for not competing. Golf returns to the Olympics after a 112- year exile but Day is one of numerous golfers, including the world’s top four, who has opted out.
KENDRA HARRISON (USA)
Harrison broke the world record in the 100m hurdles at the London Anniversary Games just days after failing to qualify to the Olympics during Trials. Ironically, she beat all the Rio-bound Americans in her event when she broke the world record in London.