Countless athletes worldwide train relentlessly throughout their lives to master one sport. Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been trying to master two, and in the process has managed to make history for the UAE.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Sheikha Maitha became the first woman to represent the UAE at the Olympic Games where she competed in the 67kg taekwondo event. But her mere participation at the Games was not her only contribution to the record books.
In Beijing, she also became the first female flag-bearer at the Olympics from the Gulf region thus flipping a new page in Arab sports history, shattering all stereotypes the world might conceive, and inspiring countless young women around the Middle East.
“I have carried the UAE flag at many championships before, global and regional,” Sheikha Maitha said of her experience in China. “But doing the same in Beijing is a different feeling, something completely different.”
And indeed Sheikha Maitha’s success had started many years before her Olympic debut. The UAE princess started her career in martial arts 11 years ago when she was 20. She began with karate and four years later she also took up taekwondo, and has been juggling both ever since – in an artful way nonetheless.
In 2004 she became the first woman from the UAE to win an international gold medal when she placed first in the karate over-65kg category at the 10th Pan Arab Games in Algeria. In the same competition, Sheikha Maitha took silver in the Open category, and bronze in both the team kumite and team kata events.
After winning her first two medals in Algeria she described her achievement as a “dream come true” but by the end of the competition, after the UAE women’s team had captured six medals, Sheikha Maitha was already looking ahead saying: “This has been a great championship for UAE sports, particularly in karate. We now want to set higher goals for the future.”
She won the gold again in the Pan Arab Games in Cairo three years later. And that kind of determination is precisely what has carried her higher throughout the years.
Her first success on the continental level came in 2006 in Doha when she pocketed the silver medal in the Asian Games in the over-60kg Karate event, a result that helped her receive the Arab Athlete of the Year Award in 2007.
In 2008 she was named Best Female Arab Sportsperson at the Arab Sports Awards and the honours and recognitions continued to roll, from making one of Forbes magazine’s famous top-20 lists, to most recently getting voted Best Sports Personality of 2010 at the annual Best In Dubai Awards often dubbed the “Emmys of the Emirate”.
The Beijing lesson
Sheikha Maitha’s Beijing experience in taekwondo was both a dream and a tough lesson. While making history for her country and just getting the chance to stroll around the Olympic Village alone eclipses any other feat, Sheikha Maitha’s time on the mat was a challenging one.
She faced South Korean Hwang Kyung-seon, who was six years her junior, in the opening round and was comprehensively beaten 5-1. She had a chance at the bronze medal against Croatia’s Sandra Saric but again she was overpowered by her opponent.
Still Sheikha Maitha left China with positive memories saying nothing could keep her down. “I’ve learned a lot and next time I’ll try to close the gap,” she said. “I’m pretty hard-headed. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m pretty used to it. I’m a tough girl. Don’t worry.”
Her appearance at Beijing led her a year later to become the first Arab woman to appear in the World Taekwondo Federation rankings system that was launched in 2009, and was classified as No.3 in her weight category.
At 31, Sheikha Maitha is still a fierce competitor and is back to her winning ways in Taekwondo. In March this year she dominated in the GCC Women’s Games in Abu Dhabi where she beat her Kuwaiti opponent Hamayal Ghazi Al Yaqoob 6-1 to bag the gold in the 73kg class.
Her appreciation for sport remains the vital key to her continued excellence. “I love sports. I love athletes. I love what sportsmanship represents, the value of sports. Win or lose, it’s very fair. There’s no class, you know. Everyone is equal. You’re on your merit,” she said.
Career timeline – Steady rise to the top
2000 – Started her career in martial arts.
2004 – 10th Pan Arab Games in Algeria: became first UAE woman to win an international gold medal in the karate over-65kg category. Also won silver in the Open category, and bronze in both the team kumite and team kata events.
2006 – Asian Games in Doha: Silver medal in the over-60kg karate event.
2007 – Received the Arab Athlete of the Year Award. Won the gold again in the 11th Pan Arab Games in Cairo.
2008 – Beijing Olympics: Became the first woman to represent the UAE at the Olympic Games competing in the 67kg taekwondo event. Also became the first female flag-bearer at the Olympics from the Gulf region and won the Best Female Sportsperson at the Arab Sports Awards.
2009 – Became the first Arab woman to appear in the World Taekwondo Federation rankings system that was launched that year.
2010 – Best Sports Personality of the year at the annual Best In Dubai Awards.
2011 – Abu Dhabi GCC Women’s Games: Taekwondo gold medal in the 73kg class.