Rio 2016: The middle distance

Over the next few days, two Emirati athletes – one male, one female – will be taking to the track in Rio for the heats of the 1500m. As Will Jones discovers, they’ve taken very different routes to Rio de Janeiro

Betlhem Desalegn has been here before. The diminutive Ethiopian-born runner made her Olympic debut in 2012, at the age of just 20. “Betty”, as she’s known, didn’t manage to make it out of the heats in London. However, the experience proved invaluable, and her career has come on greatly over the last four years.

Since London, Desalegn has accumulated a drawer-full of medals from various competitions: gold in both the 1500m and 5000m at the Asian Athletics Championships in 2013 and 2015, two more golds at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championships in February, and a slew of silvers. Betty set a new personal best just three months ago – and assuming she’s recovered from the hamstring injury she aggravated in July, she’s a good bet to improve on her London performance.

Desalegn booked her Games ticket in May by running the official qualifying time. However, that isn’t the only way to reach the Games. In addition to these qualifying places, some nations are given special wild-card picks by the International Olympic Committee or the international federation governing the sport (in athletics, that’s the IAAF), which is why Saood Al Zaabi will be on the start line on Tuesday.

It’s fair to say that Al Zaabi was surprised when he found out he’d been picked for the Games. An employee of the Abu Dhabi Police, Al Zaabi has run regularly at police athletics competitions, but has never competed for the UAE in a national or international athletics meeting. The Olympic Games is quite a place to make your debut.

What’s more, he’ll be out of his comfort zone: Al Zaabi is an 800m specialist, but will be running the 1500m in Rio. It’s a tough task, but he’s had advice from the very best: Al Zaabi has been adjusting his training with the help of Saïd Aouita, the legendary Moroccan middle-distance specialist who once held the 1500m world record and won Olympic gold in 1984.

And if Al Zaabi, who turned 28 on the first Sunday of the Games, follows Aouita on to the podium in Rio, it would be the shock to end all sporting shocks.

Betlhem Desalegn will run in the heats of the women’s 1500m at 3.30am (UAE time) on Saturday, August 13; Saood Al Zaabi will compete in the heats of the men’s 1500m at 5.30pm (UAE time) on Tuesday, August 16