Watching Majlinda Kelmendi of Kosovo win a judo gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro proved to be a turning point for Sultan Al Kitbe. The Emirati judoka who won gold in both the Gulf and West Asian Championships in 2006 and 2007 respectively was left to wonder how a smaller country less populated than the UAE could be successful on the world’s biggest stage.
Those images replayed in Al Kitbe’s mind and the more he thought about it the more serious he became. He started working on a plan to create a pathway to nurture the country’s youth.
The Titan Sports Academy is his brainchild. With the backing of the UAE Wrestling, Kick Boxing and Judo Federation, the academy was inaugurated in May under the same roof of the federation’s headquarters located at the premises of the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club.
“We have taken the first step of walking a million miles,” Al Kitbe said when asked of his ambitious project.
“Firstly, to establish an academy in collaboration with a government organisation is a massive responsibility. We want to encourage kids to get involved in as many sports as possible. Our experts will be at hand to advise and guide them if they have the potential to reach a good level in whatever sport they choose.”
The indoor arena is geared to accommodate multiple sports and provide athletes with the opportunity to participate in more than one sport under the same roof. The academy enrolls both Emiratis and expatriate children from ages five onwards and already has 170 children registered.
“The curriculums are based on structured programmes to evaluate the progress of the athletes once in every three months,” Al Kitbe said.
“We have started with 10 different sports and plan to increase it to around 20 to 25 different disciplines, including track and field, as well as team sports in the coming years.”
The majority of the pupils are beginners but there are several Emirati children under the academy's tutelage with proven track records, particularly in wrestling and judo.
Faris Al Eriffe, 16, is a member of the UAE junior judo national team and is preparing for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires from October 1 to 6.
“I joined the academy to do a fitness course over the summer,” he said. “Judo is my main sport but I also practice wrestling for flexibility and jiu-jitsu to improve ground fighting.
“It definitely is a good move to have a variety of sporting activities at every level under one roof.”
Emirati judokas Khalifa Al Hosani, 17, and Maitha Al Neyadi, 16, are both under the guidance of Al Kitbe and have already been earmarked as potential future champions.
“They can reach a good level in the international circuit,” he said. “The federation has 12 training centres around the country and they will all come under the Titan curriculum soon.”
Al Kitbe, the managing director of the academy, is well aware of the high standards and the commitment required from the youngsters to reach the level to compete against the best in the world.
“Of course, we are realistic of our objectives,” he said. “Not everybody can make it to the top flight. Our programmes are based on benchmarks and we are hopeful of achieving our objectives over a period of time.”
Some of the early enrollments are beginners to sports and there are those with ambitions of pursuing careers in sports.
Iris Hollsworth, 8, is from Essex, England. She joined the academy’s summer camp two weeks ago to improve her running skills.
“I started as a swimmer but I wanted to try something else during the summer,” she said. “I’m enjoying doing a lot of different sports here but when I grow up I would like to be a long-distance runner.”
Ali Humaid Al Yaarbi, 11, an Emirati, wants to excel in judo. “I practice judo, wrestling, kick boxing, gymnastic, jiu-jitsu and love to play football, he says. “However, judo is my favourite and that’s the sport I want to pursue on. I want to make it to the UAE national judo team.”
In his younger days Al Kitbe also harboured ambitions to represent his country at the Olympic Games. However, his dream ended when he was forced to give up competing on medical advice. He suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, but continued to train and compete until he was told to stop or risk permanent damage.
“It has been four years since I stopped competing. I still train to keep myself in shape, though,” he said.
Al Kitbe, 27, was nine when he made his first foray into sports. He started with swimming before moving on to athletics and horse riding. However, it was in martial arts that he excelled. He practiced kick boxing, wrestling, muay thai, jiu-jitsu, mixed martial arts and, of course, judo.
His enthusiasm wasn’t confined to the ring, mat or pool though. Al Kitbe has played an active role at the UAE Wrestling, Kick Boxing and Judo Federation in administration and event management from a young age.
That experience has come in handy for Al Kitbe to pursue on his new-found passion and project to shape up future Olympians.