Home again: Maldives’ Olympians talk London 2012

An estimated audience of 900million people saw Mohamed Ajufan Rasheed carrying the Maldivian flag during the opening ceremony of this summer’s Olympic Games in London.

A further 750million were said to have seen the closing ceremony during which fellow compatriot Azneem Ahmed took the opportunity to wave the red, green, and white for the world to see.

In between, Ajufan competed in the men’s badminton as the first Maldivian to qualify independently for an Olympic event, whilst Azneem broke the Maldives’ national record in the men’s 100metre preliminary heats.

The pair were accompanied by Aminath Shajan – women’s 50m freestyle swimming , Ahmed Husham – men’s 100m freestyle swimming, and Afa Ismail – women’s 100m athletics.

These five Maldivians joined over 10,000 fellow Olympians competing in 26 different sporting events conducted across Great Britain.

A total of 962 medals were shared amongst 85 countries and, despite the Maldives not appearing on the medals table, the games was not without progress for the island nation.

Both Ajufan and Azneem have returned to Male’, anxious to talk about their time in London and excited about their sporting futures.

“We want to share our experiences with others,” said Ajufan, whose first match in the tournament saw him drawn against current European champion Marc Zwiebler, ranked the world number 18 by the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF).

Despite holding his own for long periods during his first ever clash with a European opponent, Ajufan lost to both Zwiebler and his next opponent, the Ukrainian Dmytro Zavadsky (ranked 48 in the sport’s official rankings).

Undeterred however, Ajufan was confident he had benefited from this high level of competition at the games.

“It was not the speed [of Zwiebler] but his finishing shots. I need to work on specific shots,” he said.

Ajufan’s own rise in the BWF rankings has been greatly assisted by the opportunity to train in Malaysia courtesy of Interntional Olympic Committee (IOC) funding.

Improved training and facilities have seen him rise 200 places to 185th in the official rankings in less than a year.

After training six hours a day and working the world’s tournament circuit in preparation for the Olympics, Ajufan is enjoying his first holiday in a year and a half.

Azneem’s preparations for the games were quite different.

After being scouted in Kulhudfushi in 2008, Azneem found work in Male’ with the police force and designed his Olympic training schedule – 2hrs a day – around his duties.

Despite an increased workload owing to political tensions in the capital this year, Azneem was still able to become the first Maldivian sprinter to qualify from the preliminary rounds at the Olympic Games, recording a national record time of 10.79 seconds.

Ahmed Marzook, Secretary General of the Maldives Olympic Committee (MOC), explained that he was hoping to send Azneem to train in Jamaica by the end of September to continue his development.

He will compete in the Maldives quarterly ranking event at the running track in Male’ this weekend.

“We are hoping to send all our athletes abroad eventually,” said Marzook.

Azneem had previously made history as part of the 4 x 100metre relay team who won the country’s first medal at the 2010 South Asian Games.

Marzook explained that the Olympics will have prepared the athlete’s for the next South Asian Games in February 2013.

“We are really hoping for individual medals,” said Marzook.

When asked about the disadvantages of competing against the financial advantages of other Olympic nations, Ajufan said that he felt it was commitment that was the vital ingredient for young athletes, and hoped that their achievements could inspire others.

“Before, Maldivians thought that the Olympics were out of reach – now kids have more motivation,” he said.

As for the next Olympiad, Marzook is optimistic that the team will be even bigger in Brazil in four years time.

“We will now focus on nine or ten athletes,” he said.

The Olympic experience is one both Azneem and Ajufan are keen to repeat.

“There was a good atmosphere in the Olympic Village,” said Ajufan. “There were lots of famous people.”

Both athletes had the opportunity to meet Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis whilst in the UK.

But, while Azneem was able to meet the British athlete during his pre-Olympic stay in Bedford, Ajufan was unable to see her in the flesh.

“I met Jessica Ennis at Madame Tussaud’s [waxwork museum],” he laughed.

When asked whether they would be in Rio for the 31st Olympic Games, the pair replied in unison.

“That’s the plan.”