Rio 2016 officially begins when the Olympic flame ends its odyssey at the spectacular Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremony. Mubarak Salah was given the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of that journey, Gruffudd Owen reports
It is one of the most iconic spectacles in world sport – a 3,000-year-old tradition, 20,000 miles in the making – whose climax, with the first burst of roaring flame inside the cauldron, illuminates millions of watching eyes across the world and marks the beginning of the Olympic Games.
The symbolic opening of the Games at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium Friday, August 5 will be a special moment for many, but for those who were lucky enough to help bring the Olympic flame to Rio, it will be an occasion they will never forget.
And the UAE’s very own Mubarak Salah can count himself among the fortunate few.
A graduate of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Programme for Sports Leadership Development, Salah now works as director of international business operations in the Middle East region for the Dow Chemical Company.
I consider myself among the luckiest because I raised the UAE flag in the Olympic Torch Relay
After entering a competition to take part in the relay, the young Emirati was picked as one of five global torchbearers – along with participants from Argentina, Germany, Singapore and the USA – to join the 12,000 other runners who have carried the flame through more than 300 towns and cities and 27 states in Brazil.
“I carried the torch on 24 May, in the Brazilian city of Salvador. The crowd was huge and there was a lot of international coverage,” Salah says. “Although I carried it only for 200 metres, which is the distance assigned to each participant, it was enough for my nation to be represented in the Olympic Torch Relay.”
Salah is keen to add that his memorable experience in Brazil is a source of both personal and patriotic pride for him.
“I consider myself among the luckiest because I raised the UAE flag in the Olympic Torch Relay, and my country’s name was heard among the 12,000 participants,” he says.
“During my stay in Brazil, I spoke about the UAE, trying to be the country’s ambassador at what is a major Olympic event. I had never actually dreamed of carrying the torch one day, but what I’ve done is bigger than any dream I could have had, as Brazil has given me so many beautiful memories.”
With a burning passion for sports himself, Salah has tasted success playing for Al-Ahli in beach soccer, and has also helped organise events hosted by the Dubai Sports Council.
And having visited the country when they were hosts of another global sporting event just two years ago, he is convinced that Brazil’s celebrated love affair with sport makes Rio an ideal home for the Games this summer.
“It was not my first time in Brazil,” he reveals. “I went to some of the matches at the last World Cup as a fan after taking part with my team in a competition in Dubai and winning a trip.
“Football in particular and sports in general are an essential part of life, with people everywhere playing sport and getting a lot of fun out of it.”
I wish the best of luck to our Olympic team
Turning his attention to the UAE’s chances this summer, Salah recalls the country’s finest Olympic hour at the 2004 Games, and hopes that this can spur on the 13 Emirati athletes competing at Rio.
“I wish the best of luck to our Olympic team,” he says. “I hope they can return home with a medal and rekindle memories of His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum’s success at the 2004 Athens Olympics.”
As the whole world prepares to be thrilled by a summer of sport, the knowledge that he helped light up the Games – and the memories that come with it – will shine bright for Salah for many years to come.