Going for gold

Dubai is flexing its muscles as a world-class sports destination as it seeks to nurture current and future champions

Dubai has a skyline that has become a Manhattan of the Gulf, the hotels are among the finest in the world and investment plus imagination is creating entirely new islands. Every visit to Dubai is like watching a child grow up, and is always an engaging experience.

Now the child is starting to come out and play on the world stage and is beginning to flex its muscles as an increasingly popular sports hub thanks to its incredible number of world-class facilities. For any visitor, a walk down to the geographical feature that made the emirate the Gulf’s prime marketplace is a must. Dubai Creek is the sparkling waterway that slices the city in half. Dhows, the shapely vessels that once swarmed all over the Middle East, are moored along the banks, crews dozing until the cargo of their dreams materialises.

They are a throwback to the old days when Dubai was a sleepy fishing port, but visitors should not be fooled. Just like its rising skyline, sport in Dubai is on the up at an amazing rate.

At the heart of it is the wonderful Dubai Sports City, the world’s first integrated sports city covering an area of more than 4.6m square metres of sporting venues, academies, exceptional homes, cultural activities and retail opportunities.This $US4bn sporting wonderland was launched in 2004 and its centrepiece is a 60,000-seat, multi-purpose outdoor stadium capable of hosting top-class athletics, football and cricket.

When Ian Thorpe, Australia’s legendary five-time Olympic gold medal winning swimmer, visited Sports City earlier this year he had his breath taken away. “It’s incredible,” he told Vision. “The magnitude of the project is absolutely the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”

Dubai Sports City hosts the International Cricket Council’s first global cricket academy, a purpose-built Manchester United Soccer School, an International Hockey Federation academy, a Butch Harmon golf school, a David Lloyd tennis academy, and other academies for rugby, swimming and athletics.

Pakistan’s cricketers have practically turned it into their home ground while they are exiled from their own country because of security concerns, and have played one-day matches there against Australia, England and New Zealand.

Everton has been among several English Premier League football clubs that have taken advantage of Dubai’s warm climate to jet in for a short training break during the English winter and, most recently, the Brazilian squad prepared there for the inaugural Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

“Premier League players are used to state-of-the-art training facilities and can become quite blasé about them,” says Phil Neville, the Everton captain and former England international. “But even we were impressed by the standard of what we discovered in Dubai.

“The pitches are up to FIFA World Cup standards and the medical facilities are on a par with a five-star private hospital. It was really remarkable what we found there. The boys were talking about the facilities for weeks.”

The latest stage in the city’s sport development was unveiled in October when Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, launched the $US300m Dubai Sports Complex built over a sprawling 61-acre plot.

The Complex will host the 10th FINA  Swimming World Championship, (FINA is the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming), due to begin on 15 December, and will feature competitors from more than 130 countries. “Dubai can definitely host the best-ever Championships,” said Thorpe. “I don’t think any country has held the event in such brilliant state-of-the-art facilities. These are basically Olympic-standard venues.”

Many people expected Dubai to launch a bid for the 2016 Olympics, but in the end Dubai decided not to put itself forward in a race that was eventually won by Rio de Janeiro. There is growing expectation, though, that it will be one of the leading candidates for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics and, with a growing clamour for major events to be held in the Middle East; should they decide to bid they could start as one of the favourites.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, has already launched a feasibility study into the possibility of sanctioning a bid. If Dubai does decide to bid, then it will have a powerful voice in Her Royal Highness Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s wives, who is the President of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and an influential member of the International Olympic Committee. Having represented Jordan in showjumping at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Princess Haya shares her husband’s love of horses.

“I can assure you of this: if we decide to make a bid for the Olympics, we will be in it to win,” Sheikh Mohammed said during an interview earlier this year on the occasion of SportAccord, the conference for sports leaders that Dubai hosted in April. “We would not take such a step unless we were quite serious about it.

“We have a lot to offer. Dubai already has a well-developed infrastructure and a good track record of staging international sporting events.

Dubai’s first serious forays into the world of international sport came thanks to golf. Since 1989, Dubai has played host to the Dubai Desert Classic, a tournament that has become a mainstay within the PGA European tour ever since. The Dubai Desert Classic was the first golfing tournament to be hosted within the Middle East and now attracts entries from many of the world’s top players.

The golfing industry in Dubai is booming at such a rate that Tiger Woods has invested to build a luxurious golf course of his own within the city. When it is finished, it is set to take its place alongside the most famous of Dubai’s courses, the Al Badia, that is ranked among the top 100 courses in the world.

This course was created by Robert Trent Jones II and masterfully includes ponds, lakes and waterfalls. It is truly stunning and attracts many people from all over the world to Dubai just to view it and then play the course. It is a par 72 course and is considered to be challenging even to the seasoned professional.

These days, the city’s biggest annual event is the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race, which has been held annually since 1996 and which now has a prize purse of $US10m. This year, the race was held for the first time at the new Meydan Racecourse.

Covering 7.5m square metres, the racecourse development comprises two tracks as well as an 18-hole golf course. The centrepiece is the glittering new 60,000 capacity grandstand. The distinctive wing-shaped building, which spans a full 1.6 kilometres making it by far the world’s largest grandstand, holds a five-star hotel, six haute cuisine restaurants, an IMAX theatre, a racing museum, a 10,000-capacity covered car park as well as state-of-the-art breeding and training facilities, not to mention a marina. It also boasts the world’s longest LED screen.

“It’s like Old Trafford, the Emirates and Wembley all rolled into one,” says jockey Frankie Dettori. “When they turn the lights on, it looks like a spaceship from Star Wars.”

That sums up what Dubai is about: a can-do destination, where most things are possible, yet it continues to believe it is still growing up and that its best days are ahead.