When it comes to representing the Gulf at the Paralympic Games, the United Arab Emirates have strength in numbers. Together, the 18 Emirati athletes in Rio make the country’s largest ever delegation, one more than Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia combined. And with a roadmap in place for the future, the future is bright.
Twenty-five UAE athletes qualified for this month’s Games, which run until Sunday, but the International Paralympic Committee provided the UAE with a maximum of 18 places via its quota system. Powerlifter Haifa Naqbi, 35, is the country’s only wildcard, selected by the country’s National Paralympic Committee (NPC) to debut in the Under-86kg category.
“It’s been a great challenge to organize our largest delegation, but we are excited to be here and are participating in three sports that we have experience in: athletics, shooting and powerlifting,” said Theban Al Muhairi, the Secretary-General of the committee. “To be at the Paralympics is an achievement in itself because it is recognition of the work we have done in the past four years, but we are of course also expecting to go home with some medals.”
The UAE’s campaign got off to a dream start when Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani claimed a silver medal in the Men’s 10m Air Rifle Standing on the opening day of the Games. The 46-year-old, who represented his country at the Olympics before a car crash restricted him to a wheelchair, is competing in his second Paralympics after winning gold in the Mixed 50m Rifle Prone in London four years ago.
“I have four events, so this [medal] makes me very confident for every event,” said al Aryani, who added a second silver medal in Monday’s 50m Rifle 3P and will defend his 2012 gold later today. “I used to feel under a lot of pressure when I was competing, but I have now learned and I know how to adjust and to concentrate on what I need to do.”
Mohammed Khalaf added a gold to the Emirates medal haul in the Under-88kg powerlifting yesterday. It was the Emirates’ 15th medal in seven Paralympics, a stark contrast to the nation’s record at the Olympics, where they have managed just two medals in nine iterations. Al Muhairi says the country’s consistency is proof that Paralympic sport is respected in the UAE and that the NPC’s hard-work is worthwhile.
“We won three medals in London and the knock-on effect was we had more athletes coming to the clubs,” Al Muhairi said. “The hope is that with some more medals here in Rio, our quota will be increased for Tokyo and we can bring more athletes again and next time across more sports. This is our goal.”
With more than 1,000 para-athletes registered in the UAE, the NPC is already laying the groundwork for further success. The Emirates’ 2020 roadmap, featuring the country’s traditional three sports, also sees a focus on fencing and archery, while sailing, equestrian and wheelchair basketball are on the radar too. In December, Dubai will host the Gulf Wheelchair Basketball Championships, while the International Paralympic Committee will elect its new president at the organization’s annual General Assembly, to be held next September in Abu Dhabi.
“These events further show our commitment to Paralympic sport and the Paralympic movement,” Al Muhairi said. “The UAE is a country that is open-minded and encourage the disabled to represent their country. Even since we arrived in Brazil, we have received calls from the local embassy here, showing their support and giving us a push to do well.”
The Gulf is enjoying a productive games with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi all winning medals, despite bringing substantially smaller delegations. Qatari Abdulrahman Abdulrahman won silver in the F34 Shot Put; Ahmad Al Mutairi of Kuwait took gold in the T33 100m; Hani Al Nakhli took bronze for Saudi Arabia in F33 Men’s Shot Put; and Bahrain’s Fatema Nedham won the F53 Women’s Shot Put.
1. UAE: Athletes: 18, Medals: 3
2. BAHRAIN: Athletes: 2, Medals: 1
3. KUWAIT: Athletes: 6, Medals: 1
4. QATAR: Athletes: 3, Medals: 1
5. SAUDI: Athletes: 4, Medals: 1
6. OMAN: Athletes: 2, Medals: 0