The UAE won their first gold medal of the 2016 Paralympic Games on Tuesday – and the smile on the podium came from a familiar face. Will Jones reports on another victory for Mohammed Khalaf, the most decorated Paralympian in Emirati history
Going into the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the UAE’s 24-year Paralympic history had yielded just two gold medals.
Make that three. Twelve years after his triumph in the men’s -82.5kg category at the Athens Paralympics of 2004, Emirati powerlifter Mohammed Khalaf struck gold once more at the Games on Tuesday afternoon, upsetting a strong field in Rio de Janeiro to take the top prize in the men’s -88kg event.
Khalaf has been the UAE’s leading Paralympic powerlifter since he made his debut at the Games back in 2000. On that occasion, over in Sydney, he finished in fourth place, just out of the medals. But the powerlifter, who lost the use of his legs as a child after suffering from polio, resolved to come back stronger – and did just that, winning gold in 2004 and then silver four years later.
We are celebrating a holy day in my country, so it was a very good opportunity for me to give something to the country and the UAE people.
After a shoulder problem derailed his quest for a medal at the London 2012 Paralympics, few were expecting Khalaf to challenge for gold in Rio this summer. But although the 47-year-old powerlifter has suffered a number of debilitating injuries in recent years, neither Khalaf nor his long-time coach, Titou Kacem of Morocco, lost faith in his strength and talent.
On Tuesday, competing in the men’s -88kg event, Khalaf lifted an immense 220kg, some 10kg more than his nearest rivals. With pre-event favourites Seyedhamed Solhipouravanji of Iran and Ye Jixiong from China failing to execute a single successful lift, Khalaf came away as the clear winner. Brazilian lifter Evanio da Silva gave the home fans something to cheer about when he lifted 210kg to win the silver. But the day was all about Khalaf.
Khalaf was thrilled with his victory. “I cannot express my happiness for getting this gold,” he said. “We are celebrating a holy day in my country, so it was a very good opportunity for me to give something to the country and the UAE people. My experience made the difference.”
The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games continue until Sunday 18 September.