From Olympic-themed party to real thing, Saudi's Yasmeen Al Dabbagh ready to fulfill dream

Saudi Arabia's 100m sprinter, who is coached by former Olympic champion Linford Christie, is keen to change perceptions and inspire the next generation - but first she wants to soak up her Tokyo experience

Yasmeen Al Dabbagh will make her Olympic debut in the 100m at the Tokyo Games on Friday.
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Even before her spikes have made their first indentation on the rubber of the Tokyo running track, Saudi Arabia sprinter Yasmeen Al Dabbagh is already loaded with Olympic stories.

The 23-year-old will go in the 100-metre heats when the track events start early on Friday. It will represent the fulfilment of a dream for someone who grew up obsessed with the Games.

Eleven years ago, she had an Olympic-themed birthday party when she turned 12. And for the past three years, she has been coached by Linford Christie, the former Great Britain sprinter who won 100m gold at the Barcelona Games of 1992.

Now she has the chance to compete herself, as the figurehead of the Saudi Arabia sprint team.

While the prospect of making her bow, amid a glittering field, in one of the Olympics’ flagship events might be daunting, at least she should feel acclimatised to her surroundings. She was, after all, her nation’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony.

As a female competitor for Saudi Arabia, she is well aware of her responsibilities as a role model. Rather than be burdened by it, she is glad of the chance to inspire.

Although she does acknowledge that, for whatever time it takes her to get down the track on Friday, she will be focusing on herself.

“It might sound a little cheesy but those who broke new ground for Saudi really had an impact on me,” Al Dabbagh told The National.

“They say if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and that was true for me. So I owe a lot to those Saudi Olympians who competed in past games. [Runners] Sarah Attar and Cariman Abu Al Jadail, the equestrian [rider] Dilma Malhas, and the swimmer, Mariam Binladen.

“As they have done, my aim is also to encourage a new generation of runners and athletes to compete at the highest levels.

“It is a very exciting time in the kingdom, with the Federation putting in place the necessary structure to allow our talented youth a space to thrive and to emerge from as professional athletes.

“Because of it, a new chapter in our sporting history is about to be written.

“For now though I’m not thinking of following others or being a role model. I just thinking of running my best race.”

Al Dabbagh was born in the UK and was also educated in Saudi Arabia and the United States, where she pursued track and field while studying economics at university in New York.

After that, though, she feared her race might have been run when it came to competitive athletics, until she chanced upon an intriguing advertisement in a newspaper.

“After college in the US, I was a little downbeat as I felt I lacked the experience needed,” she said. “Then I actually saw a newspaper ad with Linford seeking new athletes to coach and it all went from there.

“Linford Christie is an idol to me and having the chance to train with him and learn from him is an experience like no other.

“Not just from the coaching and technique aspect, but also from the belief and confidence he instils in me, and his continuous encouragement to me to make it to the Olympics.”

She says the biggest thing Christie has taught her is “to believe in myself - simple as that”.

“Linford is so competitive,” she said. “He just can’t help himself, even on Candy Crush.

“Which is actually quite cool and something I’ve trying to take on board. To aim to be a little better every day, step by step.”

And by doing so, she says she hopes she can help change some perceptions about her homeland.

“In general, I disapprove random opinions that are based on rumours rather than facts,” Al Dabbagh said. “I believe many people around the world have had a wrong image about Saudi Arabia.

“No country is perfect, but the journey of transformation we are going through as a nation is something we are very proud of.

“Sadly, [people] still think that women don’t practice sports in the kingdom. But, hopefully, in the space of 100m in Tokyo I can help dispel that myth.

“As the truth is that sport is playing a massive role in our society and is a real force for good for men and women, young and old.

“Many people, when they know I’m a sprinter from Saudi, want to ask about topics that the whole world is challenged by daily. But Saudi Arabia really is moving forward.”

Updated: July 29, 2021, 4:22 AM