The UAE, after record medal haul in Rio, set foundations for Tokyo 2020 and beyond

Reporting from Rio, Gary Meenaghan reflects on the UAE's highly successful Paralympic Games and what it means for the country's future paralympians.

Mohammed Khalaf won the UAE's first gold medal of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in the -88kg powerlifting. RTSNJFU
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RIO DE JANEIRO // Take a bunch of standalone statistics, place them inside the Super Spin Doctor 3000, hit the green (and red, white and black) button and watch as neat little rows of Numerical Indisputable Facts (NIFs) are squeezed out onto the machine’s adjacent conveyor belt.

NIFs such as:

1. The UAE took 18 athletes to the Paralympic Games and came home with seven medals, representing a strike rate of more than 38 per cent. Brazil managed only 25 per cent while the United States finished with 41 per cent.

2. Arriving in Rio having won 12 medals in six previous appearances, the UAE’s record haul at a single Games was four, achieved in both Sydney and Athens. Rio represents a 75 per cent increase on that previous best and increases the all-time medal count by more than 50 per cent.

3. After 528 events in which 160 countries competed, the UAE finished a record-high of joint-38th in the medal table, alongside Czech Republic, Denmark and Morocco, all three of whom brought larger delegations.

More from the Paralympic Games:

• Noura Al Ketbi: Silver in shot put F32 class wins seventh medal for UAE

• Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani: UAE shooter needs a new trophy cabinet to hold record-medal haul

• Mohammed Al Hammadi: Sets new Paralympic Games record in T34 800m to win UAE's second gold

Of course, if the settings on the Super SD3000 are configured incorrectly, other results may be produced. For example, with 4,346 athletes competing for 2,347 medals, the chances of winning have never been so high. But now is not the time for such NIFs. It is clear even without the assistance of spin doctoring this month has been overwhelmingly positive for the Emirates. The country’s Paralympic team has reached historic levels of achievement.

Shooter Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani became the most decorated Emirati athlete in history, adding a trio of silvers to the gold he won at London 2012. Mohammed Khalaf and Mohammed Al Hammadi won their second golds in powerlifting and athletics respectively to now each hold more first-place medals than every UAE Olympian combined. And Sara Al Senaani, in taking shot-put bronze, became the first Emirati female to appear on a podium.

Such success does not arrive without certain elements of planning and professionalism. Theban Al Muhairi, the secretary-general of the National Paralympic Committee, said the medal haul is the fruit of four years of focus and preparation. In Rio, rather than enjoying the sights of a beautiful city, the delegation largely spent its days giving each other belief in their own capabilities.

“When I was a child, I thought I cannot do anything, but my mother and father and teacher told me I can do anything I set my mind to,” said Al Senaani, who was born with cerebral palsy. “I listened to them, but I did not believe because I was too young and other people would tell me there are things I cannot do. But when I was 13 or 14 I changed my mindset. Now I know if I train hard I can do anything. Maybe not first time, but I will try again and I will achieve.”

Twenty-five Emirati athletes qualified for Rio, but the country was given a quota of only 18. Al Muhairi arrived with a figure in his head regarding how many medals he would like in order to help increase that quota for Tokyo 2020. Needless to say, the Emirates surpassed it.

“We won three medals in London and the knock-on effect was we had more athletes coming to the clubs,” Al Muhairi said. “Now the hope is that with more medals in Rio, our quota will be increased and we can bring more athletes again and next time across more sports.”

The UAE has more than 1,000 registered para-athletes and while a 2020 roadmap features the traditional shooting, powerlifting and athletics, it now also focuses on fencing and archery. A women’s shooting team is likely to make the trip to Tokyo, while sailing, equestrian and wheelchair basketball are on the radar too.

Later this year, the Gulf Wheelchair Basketball Championships will be held in Dubai, while the International Paralympic Committee will hold its annual General Assembly in Abu Dhabi next September. Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani is under no illusion as to the end goal.

“With Expo 2020, there is a great motivation for the UAE to host other big-scale events,” said the four-time medallist, who formerly sat on the board of a committee tasked with making the Emirates more socially inclusive. “I have a feeling Dubai will bid for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics.”

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