Rio 2016: Bronze, personal bests and a bright future

With Saood Al Zaabi’s appearance in the men’s 1500m, UAE involvement in the Olympic Games drew to a close. Will Jones looks back over the last fortnight to see how the 13 Emirati athletes fared at Rio 2016

Bronze on the mat

Pride of place on the Emirati Olympic roll of honour goes to Sergiu Toma. After knocking out Takanori Nagase, the Japanese world champion, in a quarter-final bout, Moldovan-born Toma secured a thrilling ippon over Matteo Marconcini to win bronze in the -81kg category – just the second medal in UAE Olympic history.

“In the UAE, they gave me the chance to represent them,” said an emotional Toma after making the podium. “They always believed in me.” Two other Emirati judokas made the trip to Brazil: Victor Scvortov went down to Japan’s Shohei Ono in the last 16 of the -73kg event, while Ivan Remarenco was beaten in the -100kg round of 32 by Algeria’s Lyes Bouyacoub.

Gunning for gold

Over at the Olympic Shooting Centre, it was a case of so near yet so far for Khaled Al Kaabi. The Dubai native came agonisingly close to a spot in the semi-finals of the double trap, missing out on a shoot-off by just a single point. “I hope I have made everyone in my country proud,” Al Kaabi told  Vision Sport after his competition. “I will do everything I can to improve for the next time.”

However, just as at London 2012, the UAE could claim some success in the competition thanks to His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, the greatest Emirati shooter in history and the only UAE athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. Having coached Great Britain’s Peter Wilson to gold at London 2012, he guided fellow Briton Steven Scott to a bronze in Rio. “Without doubt, it was one of the biggest things towards this medal,” said Scott. “He’s a phenomenal coach – the best in the world.”

The UAE’s other two marksmen in Rio both took part in the skeet event: His Highness Sheikh Saeed bin Rashid Al Maktoum came 17th, with Saif Bin Futtais ending the competition in 29th place.

Mirza rides the road to the future

Day one of the Games saw Emirati cyclist Yousif Mirza make his Olympic debut in the road race. Greg van Avermaet won gold in what some observers have described as the toughest Olympic road race for years – more than half the riders, including Mirza, didn’t complete the course. Still, as he said on Instagram, the race “was an amazing experience for me and my team… I learn[ed] a lot… and I promise will keep working hard to come back even stronger”.

Olympic debuts in the pool

Neither of the Emirati swimmers, Yaqqoub Al Saadi in the men’s 100m backstroke and Nada Al Bedwawi in the women’s 50m freestyle, progressed from their heats at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. However, Rio 2016 proved to be a memorable experience for both young swimmers – especially Al Badwawi, who began the Games by carrying the UAE flag in the opening ceremony and ended it by celebrating her 19th birthday three days after her competition.

Worth the weight

It was also a Games to remember for Aisha Al Balooshi. The only Emirati weightlifter at the Games, Al Balooshi wasn’t expected to challenge for a medal, but the 24-year-old nonetheless performed creditably at the Riocentro: after topping out at 72kg in the snatch, she lifted 90kg in the clean and jerk to set a new personal best. It’s another stage in the continued growth of women’s weightlifting in the UAE.

Progress on the track

Making her Olympic debut, 22-year-old runner Alia Saeed Mohammed finished 23rd in the first track final of the Games – the women’s 10,000m. And what a final it was: the first 13 runners all set personal bests, and Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana broke the world record to take gold.

There was heartbreak for Emirati middle-distance specialist Betlhem Desalegn, who was forced to pull out of the women’s 1500m after failing to recover from a hamstring injury. But Saood Al Zaabi, the final UAE athlete to appear at Rio 2016, had better luck: a surprise selection for the Games, the 27-year-old Olympic debutant ran in the heats of the men’s 1500m. He didn’t qualify for the semi-finals – but like many Emirati athletes, he’s already making plans for Tokyo in 2020. See you in four years…