Leading Dubai’s athletics revolution

Following another memorable staging of the Olympic Games in Rio last year, Gruffudd Owen talks to Lisa Campbell – founder of the Ultimate Athletics Club – to learn about her efforts in promoting athletics in the sports-mad city of Dubai 

Prestigious horse races, lucrative golf tournaments and top-class racket sport championships.

Dubai is fast becoming a major player in the world of sport, with a number of high-profile events held in enviable, state-of-the-art venues attracting the world’s leading stars all year round.

But as the city enjoys an ever-growing reputation as a hub for sporting pursuits, it is becoming increasingly hard for lesser-fancied activities to challenge the more established sports in the region for popularity and, more importantly, participation on a local level.

It is something that Lisa Campbell – founder of the Ultimate Athletics Club – is determined to address.

Growing the sport in the Gulf

A former P.E. teacher at a GEMS School in Dubai, Campbell established the club in March 2015 after noting the lack of athletics facilities in the region.

“I did some research and found there was no outside provision for track and field for expats,” she explains.

“After having two children I decided not to go back to teaching full-time, but to pursue the development of athletics in the region and establish Ultimate Athletics.”

Since its inception, and under Campbell’s leadership, Ultimate Athletics has grown steadily, and now boasts a number of clubs across the UAE as well as a strong membership.

“Our main base is at Dubai Sports City; it’s a real community hub for sports in Dubai, in a great location,” Campbell says.

“We also have a club at GEMS Modern Academy School, which is the other side of town, and one at the New York University Track in Abu Dhabi.

“We hold sessions every day except Friday, and cater for all age groups, which include tots, youths, teens and adults. There are over 500 members across all the venues, and up to 200 people attend our monthly open race nights.”

Challenges ahead

Encouraging figures, but the difficulty lies in ensuring that this initial keenness does not dissipate. To this end, Campbell stresses the importance of long-term participation, as well as the marketing of athletics as an appealing alternative.

“My goal is to give athletes every chance to reach their full potential, so making sure there are pathways through all the age groups from tots to adults,” she reveals.

“On top of that, I want the club to provide another avenue for youths who don’t necessarily enjoy team sports to be active in the region. 

“Too often fast kids are guided towards playing as a striker in football, or running down the wing in rugby; why not become an athlete?

“We want to help club members find an event that suits their individual strengths; many gymnasts tend to convert well to hurdles and high jump because of their great flexibility, for example. That’s the great thing about athletics; there are events for all body types.”

While Campbell’s enthusiasm for her sport is admirable, there are limitations to what Ultimate Athletics can provide in its present state.

However, the Englishwoman regards this as something to be expected at a club that is not yet two years old; her aim is to one day see it become a fully-fledged athletics club where members can participate in any discipline, and at any time of the year.

“I'd like to have a home base that is fully geared towards track and field, so that includes a long jump pit and throwing cages,” she says.

“At the moment these are missing from our Dubai Sports City venue, and sponsors would need to come on board to fund this.

“I'm also hoping for an improvement in public athletics facilities here, including an indoor track so we can train comfortably all year round.

“Summer sessions are held at 7pm after sunset, but it can still reach 42 degrees! As you’d expect, attendance is low at this time of year.”

Michael Johnson
Lisa Campbell poses with five-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson

A star supporter

Campbell’s ambitions for the club and her desire to see it grow are seemingly boundless, and have certainly not gone unnoticed – even drawing the attention of one of the all-time great athletes.

“I met some amazing athletes in 2016. Top of the list is (five-time Olympic gold medallist) Michael Johnson, who was brought out to Dubai. He did a tour of Dubai Sports City and I was invited to meet him – what an honour.

“I stuck to his word, and in July we sent six athletes to the Michael Johnson Performance facility in Texas. They had an amazing experience and came back wiser and stronger athletes.”

Such a stellar endorsement can only help Ultimate Athletics in the long run. And with some of the club’s most promising athletes already tasting success, there is also a hope that they can go on to represent the UAE internationally. 

“We have some really promising athletes; Megan Dingle is just 13 and has a personal best of 18.11 in the 5000m. She’s winning many major road races here, even against adults,” Campbell says.

“Adil Amin is 16 years old and has been selected to run for local club Al Ahli. These local clubs run by the UAE Athletics Federation are now permitting two non-local runners per club.

“Both Megan and Adil are sponsored by Saucony GCC, who have shown great support for grassroots athletics in the UAE.

“This is a great step forward for athletics, because youths are now motivated to perform knowing that their abilities can be recognised, opening the door to wider competitions and possibly naturalisation.”

Indeed, such is Campbell’s belief in the Ultimate Athletics Club that for her, the sun-soaked Dubai sky is the limit. 

“I would like to be able to say that Ultimate Athletics has an athlete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo or at the 2024 Games.

“That would be my dream.”