Sporting foundation: UAE swim scene

With the first Dubai International Aquatics Championships taking place this week, Vision considers the future of the sport in the UAE

Michael Phelps made his return to competitive swimming in Arizona this week in what is thought to be the start of his bid to qualify for the Olympics in Rio in 2016. The 28-year-old swimmer, who holds 18 gold medals and is the most decorated Olympian of all time, officially retired in 2012 and while no official statement has been made about his intentions, he has been training five days a week and submitting to drug testing under the Olympic guidelines.

The timing of his return to the water is meaningful because it coincides with the finale of the inaugural Dubai International Aquatic Championships [DIAC] taking place at the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex, which has the directive to teach children that “Impossible is Possible” and to search for the next Michael Phelps. DIAC is considered by many to be the first step by the UAE Swimming Federation towards their aim of hosting a World Aquatic Championship.

DIAC is dedicated to raising the standards of both local swimming and coaching, and is comprised of four days of Water Polo, an Open Water competition before finishing with a swimming meet with the primary intention of increasing participation across the UAE and providing athletes with competition experience.

Its inauguration follows Dubai’s decision to develop the sport at grassroots level and to build a competitive base capable not only of hosting global events, but also competing in them, says Assistant Coach Mohamed El Zanaty. Dubai was originally in the running to host the World Championships in 2013, but opted out of the process in 2010 because “the UAE swimming federation is looking to create history for the UAE by trying to qualify rather than sending them via wildcards,” he adds.

This year, over 1,000 competitors covering eight different age brackets are taking part in three different disciplines at the 10-day championship, with the swim meet offering a chance to qualify for the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, later this year, and the FINA Senior World Championships to be held in Kazan, Russia, in 2015. “The World Aquatic Championships is an event that has the second most number of athletes competing, after the Olympics,” Ayman Saad, Executive Director of the UAE Swimming Federation highlighted at the launch press conference.

DIAC is the first step by the UAE Swimming Federation towards their aim of hosting a World Aquatic Championship
DIAC is the first step by the UAE Swimming Federation towards their aim of hosting a World Aquatic Championship

“The idea is to have five different disciplines in one championship within the next four years,” said Saad. “Hosting Worlds [championships] is a big undertaking and this is a step towards that. Diving, therefore, will be added to the 2015 DIAC event and a fifth discipline added in the future.”

Investment and infrastructure has also already been provided in the impressive Hamdan Sports Complex. Costing a reputed US$300m, it is the largest aquatic sports centre in the world. It comprises two Olympic-sized swimming pools and a diving pool as well as facilities for 11 other sports and can hold up to 15,000 spectators. The centre is capable of hosting a World Championship event and the UAE has just renewed a three-year contract to host the Diving World Series and Swimming World Cup until 2017, but the real ambition is to also generate a local winner that fans can support at a fully-fledged world event.