Journey to London 2012 begins right now - Emirates24|7

Journey to London 2012 begins right now

The UAE Athletics Association aim to take more runners to the London Olympics. (GETTY IMAGES)

With just two months to go until the Beijing Olympics, you would assume the UAE Athletics Association would be in a frenzy ahead of sports' biggest showpiece. Yet, it is the London Olympics in four years time that they have set their focus on.

Ahmad Al Kamali, secretary-general of the association, and Larry Barthlow, technical advisor, are working on a plan to take more than the two track and field athletes, who will compete in China, to the 2012 Olympics. While other Gulf countries, such as Qatar and Bahrain, have chosen to naturalise foreign athletes to boost their medal hopes, the UAE will continue to develop homegrown talents, which is in line with a strategy implemented this year.

"We now have 19 athletics clubs with more than 2,000 athletes from which to choose," says Al Kamali. "After Ramadan, we are also going to start development programmes for children in the schools."

Barthlow says: "It is a process to develop an athlete and it takes time. You can't just pour water on someone and turn him into an athlete. There's a lot of hard work and dedication needed.

"We are now starting to see some promising young athletes coming through and it has only been a year. We have a four-year plan that will hopefully provide good results for the UAE."

Among the promising young athletes is 18-year old Omar Juma Al Salfa, who was one of the runners chosen to represent the UAE in Beijing as part of an Olympic stipulation in which each country is given a chance to send athletes, even if they don't qualify, to make it truly representative. However, Al Kamali says the sprinter is close to making history.

"Omar Juma will be running the 100m and 200m at the Olympics," explains Al Kamali. "At the moment, he is competing in Jakarta. After which he will go with the UAE team to the Arab Games in Tunisia and then to Poland to the World Junior Championships.

"He is running the 200m at a time of 20.94s and the Olympic qualification time is 20.75s, so he is very close to qualifying [on merit].

"We are hoping that he achieves this in one of the upcoming events. If he does, it will be an important moment for UAE athletics because it will be the first time an Emirati track and field athlete would have qualified to compete at the Olympics."

The other athlete set to travel to Beijing is 400m hurdler Ali Obaid, who according to Barthlow, surprised a few people by winning bronze at the Asian Indoor Games. "He is a big and strong athlete," said the American technical advisor. "He ran his personal best this year and I hope to see more of the same from him after his performance at the Indoor Games."

The UAE Athletics Association will be holding its general elections on Monday to elect new board members for the next four years. Two candidates – Al Kamali and Ahmad Sayegh – will stand for the post of president. Twelve other candidates will stand for five other posts.

Ahead of the elections, Barthlow revealed the plans being implemented for the next four years to try and develop the sport and raise the level of athletes.

"When the children come back, some time after Ramadan, we want to identify a group of boys between 17 and 19 years and send them on a training camp to Africa," says Barthlow. "We want to identify girls as well because that's another thing we're looking to do – start athletics for women here.

"The world cross-country championship is in Jordan next March and we want to prepare for that from now. We are working on a camp in either Kenya or Ethiopia for which we will take six to 10 Emiratis and offer them the opportunity to learn how to train better and faster.

"As you will know, if you run with better athletes, you get better. We want to give them this exposure that has not been done yet.

"We are more inclined to use these programmes as opposed to signing on elite athletes from other countries, even if it means sending some young guys to Africa to train or to Europe to compete when they reach that level."

After all the talk about the elite athletes, people who pursue the sport as a hobby may feel alienated – but Barthlow says they form an important part of the new plans. "We want to do more to get people to stay in shape and get them to workout. On the one hand we want to develop more athletes, but on the other we don't want to forget everyone else from the UAE, which includes Emiratis and expats.

"This is a lifelong sport. All you need is a pair of trainers. So, we want to implement programmes that will give everyone some opportunities to participate."

And thus the journey to London 2012 begins





Larry Barthlow's pick on the names to look out for in the future



Omar Juma Al Salfa

"He is 18 years old and is a 100m and 200m runner. He is a talented athlete – I see him as the future of UAE athletics.

"His 200m time is also close to the Olympic qualifying time and with more international experience and competitions under his belt, he will do really well."

Mohammad Rashid Mubarak Al Jabbar

"He is an amazing talent and is running the 800m at 1:51s and he only just turned 20. He will break the UAE record either this year or next, there is no doubt about that.

"He's at the Al Ain club and I like this guy, I think he is going to run real fast over the next few years."

Ahmad Mohammad

"He is the junior shotput champion and he threw for the first time in international competition at the Asia Junior Championships this week. He has the physical make-up for a shot-putter and is a definite talent for the future. He will get better with good training."

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