DUBAI // In the 14 years since the inaugural Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, the number of participants has swollen exponentially, but there is one key aspect of the entry list that continues to noticeably lag behind.
The UAE's annual race was first held in 2000 and attracted 1,818 participants. It has since developed into what is without doubt the most prestigious marathon in the region with officials saying last night that more than 2,350 athletes signed up to take part in tomorrow's big race, with a further 17,300 people registering to take part in the 10km road race and the 3km fun run.
However, according to those who work closely with the organising of the event, the number of Emirati nationals taking part is far from proportionate to the country's population.
Officials refused to disclose the exact number of Emiratis who have signed up, explaining the figures would appear skewed courtesy of "many people" mistakenly registering their country of residence instead of their nationality.
Ahmed Al Kamali, president of the UAE Athletics Federation, said he understood that only 17 of the more than 2,000 athletes registered to run the 42.2km event are Emirati. If such projections are correct, the result is Emiratis would make up less than one per cent of the athletes taking part.
"Seventeen in the marathon is not enough," said Al Kamali, who is also a council member of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
"We want to grow; we want more local athletes, but it is not easy because the training required is intense and a minimum of eight or 10 months' preparation is needed. Participation is growing though. In our first year, in 1998 [before the event was internationally recognised], we had zero Emiratis and now we have 17, so it is growing."
Peter Connerton, event director of the marathon, agreed local interest is developing slowly, but stressed more needs to be done at grass-roots level to encourage running, particularly when considering the UAE population's documented health problems.
According to a study conducted by Phillips Healthcare last year, more than half of Emirati nationals living in Dubai are overweight. The International Diabetes Foundation reports 18.7 per cent of the UAE's adult population are affected by the disease.
Connerton said of Emirati involvement: "It's not progressing as quickly as I would like, but it is progressing.
"It was always going to be slow from where it has been at; we were down at 0.08 per cent at one point, which doesn't fit in with the demographics of the population. Last year, I think we had 21 athletes in the marathon and we went over one per cent for the whole event.
"There needs to be more engagement all around from all those concerned. Some of the bodies are only interested at the upper level and they need to get in at grass roots, get in the schools, but it is tough."
Dubai Holding, an investment arm of the emirate's government, have since 2008 offered large financial incentives to successful athletes in the hope of attracting elite runners and breaking world records.
For the past two years, the company have also provided substantial funds to reward Emiratis competing in different categories.
This year, the three fastest male and female Emiratis will split a Dh36,000 purse, while the first three nationals completing the marathon in a wheelchair will be eligible to a share of a separate Dh36,000 fund. The three fastest Emiratis to complete the 10km road race will also receive a share of Dh14,000.
"Dubai Holding are certainly attempting to improve things," Connerton said. "The wheelchair division and UAE national division isn't going to bring in actual runners, but it will publicise the benefits of running and that is something we are keen to look at because there's a huge problem with diabetes and obesity here and people don't think about it enough."
Adidas, the German sports apparel company, sponsor three UAE-based athletes - Brahim Slimani, Getinet Chala and Ismail Ssenyange - but none are Emirati. Jad Chouman, brand director of Adidas in the Mena region, said having a UAE national as a brand ambassador is not the objective and that the company are more focused on winning.
"Having local athletes whether he is Emirati or Moroccan winning the marathon in Adidas is already an inspiration, so I don't think it is so much about what nationality the athlete is, but rather who is on the podium," Chouman said.
Al Kamali, however, disagrees. "In my view, they should have an Emirati ambassador immediately," he said. "It would be inspiring. I think they will have an Emirati runner soon though. I am confident."
The president of the UAE Athletics Federation added he had not spoken to Adidas, however he knew of "two or three good boys" who, he hoped, would within the next 12 months reach the level expected of such a role.