Delay of South Asian Games “big blow” for regional sport: National Olympic Committee

Secretary General of the Maldivian National Olympic Committee (NOC) Ahmed Marzook fears that the persistent delaying of the South Asian games will be detrimental for athletes both in the Maldives and throughout the region.

“This is a big blow, and not just for us – it’s about regional sport,” he said. “This is the hope for youth in the region – this is the only thing for youth in the region.”

Marzook’s comments follow India’s decision to delay the hosting of the games for the second time. Originally scheduled for next month, the games had been rescheduled for February 2013 due to this summer Olympic Games.

However, during a teleconference with the Indian Olympic Association last week, Marzook was told that the games could not be held in February, with September 2013 mooted as an alternative.

The NOC has yet to receive official confirmation of the postponement, fuelling concerns that the games may even be pushed back to 2014.

This, explained Marzook, would only exacerbate the budgetary problems that have been caused by the delays.

“In 2014 we will be competing in both the Commonwealth and the Asian games. This will be hard if we have the South Asian Games in the same year – imagine the ticket prices for the delegations,” he said.

The postponement of the South Asian games has already caused the NOC financial problems, with money for training coming from rigid government budgets, and contracts already having been agreed with foreign coaches with February in mind.

Despite the success of the Maldives Olympic team at this year’s London games, the international experience was viewed largely in terms of preparation for the proposed regional games in February.

“The South Asian games are the first steps in terms of international exposure for many athletes,” said Marzook.

Despite regulations which state the eight-nation games must be held every other year, the competition was last held in 2010.

Previous aberrations from the biennial rule came in 2001, when the September 11 attacks caused the postponement of the Islamabad games, and in 2008 when issues surrounding the general elections in Bangladesh resulted in delaying the Dhaka games.

“If India can’t host this, who can,” asked Marzook, who argued that the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi meant that all the infrastructure for the event was in place.

Marzook argued that the reason for the delay was infighting between the Indian government and its Olympic association (IOA).

The IOA is currently in the middle of a political storm as, this week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted on sending international observers for the association’s elections.

Suresh Kalmadi has been President of the IOA since 1996 but was suspended after being arrested and jailed for his part in a corruption scandal surrounding the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

When asked about the delay in the games, Cultural Attache’ at the Indian High Commission in Male’, PC Mishra, said that the there were “no specific reasons” for the postponement.

“It is an administrative process,” said Mishra, who described Marzook’s concerns as “a little bit premature – an overreaction.”

Marzook said that Nepal had offered to step in to host the games in February, but that India had blocked the move.

Nepal, which is due to chair the next SAARC summit in before May 2013, was reported earlier this month to have fallen behind in its preparations owing to the political standoff in the country.

Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper said that Nepal was expected to inform other SAARC foreign ministers of the postponement of the 18th summit at a meeting scheduled to be held alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which is currently meeting in New York.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Maldivian athletes’ next international tournament, Marzook said that training would continue.

He revealed that arrangements were nearly completed for the intensive training of the country’s two top runners in Jamaica.

Azneem Ahmed and Hassan Saaidh – both members of the bronze medal winning 4x100m relay team in Dhaka – will travel to Jamaica after the NOC secured leave from their respective employers – the Police and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).


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.”


Maldivian athletes enjoy the Olympic Spirit in Bedford

The temperature in the United Kingdom hovered around 17°C as Howard Darbon travelled to London’s Gatwick airport to pick up two passengers, before driving them 50 miles back to his home town of Bedford.

The pair shivered in the back seat whilst their compatriots – 5000 miles away and four hours ahead – basked in temperatures of 30°C.

This ‘summer’ will be unlike any previously experienced by these visitors, for reasons far greater than the few degrees missing from the thermometer.

In just over a month’s time the pair of swimmers, from one of the smallest nations on Earth, will represent their country in the world’s largest sporting event, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Howard, the President of Bedford and County Athletic Club and Bedford’s co-ordinator of pre-London 2012 training camps, was taking Husham and Aishath Sajan to meet the families who will open their homes to  them whilst they continue their preparations.

They will join five Maldivian athletes who have been living and training within the Bedford community since June 9.

Here, the athletes from the Indian Ocean archipelago will enjoy the use of excellent sports facilities and the warm hospitality available in the Bedfordshire market town.

They can also draw inspiration from its inhabitants – past and present.

Bedford is a town with a strong Olympic pedigree, boasting a long line of British Olympians over the past century.

The 1981 film Chariots of Fire was based on the exploits of Harold Abrahams, born and raised in Bedford, who won Olympic gold at the 1924 games in Paris.

More recently, successful Olympians with strong connections to the town have included two gold medallists at the 2000 Sydney games – Tim Foster (rowing) and Stephanie Cook (pentathlon) –  and a silver medallist at the 2004 Athens games – Gail Emms (badminton).

Perhaps the most famous of the town’s athletes is Paula Radcliffe, who currently holds the world record for the women’s marathon. This summer she will be pushing for the Olympic gold that has so far proved elusive in her otherwise incredible career.

Paula is lifetime Vice President of the Bedford and County Athletics Club. The club resides at the Bedford International Athletics Stadium where the Maldivian team will train for the next few weeks.

“Their training facilities are of the highest standard – the athletics stadium, for example, has both indoor and outdoor facilities and possesses the same track surface that has been laid in the Olympic Stadium,” explained Howard.

The stadium also has indoor badminton courts and a 60 metre sprint track. Husham and Aishath Sajan will be able to continue training for their swimming events at Bedford University.

World’s apart, brought together

The training opportunities the athletes will enjoy in Bedford are very different to those in the Maldives’ capital, Male’.

The island, one of the most densely populated on the planet, can offer only limited space for the fostering of athletic talent.

“The biggest challenge we face is with facilities. Athletes don’t have a synthetic track and there is no pool for the swimmers,” explained the Secretary General of the Maldives Olympic Committee (MOC) Ahmed Marzook.

Marzook said that the majority of the committee’s Rf39.2million (US$603,680) budget is provided by the international community.

“A small administrative budget comes from the government – about Rf500,000 (US$32,400). The rest is from the International Olympic Committee, the Commonwealth, or the Olympic Council of Asia,” he explained.

The Maldives’ Olympic contingent this year will include the two swimmers, two athletics competitors – Afaa and Azuneem, and one badminton player – Ajufan.

Whilst swimming facilities may seem ubiquitous in a country which is constituted of 99 percent water, the opportunities for top-level training are scarce.

The swimming and athletics tracks in Male’ are extremely popular and greatly appreciated by the locals who can be found using throughout the day and night. Unfortunately, these facilities don’t come close to matching the facilities that other Olympians headed to London this summer will be used to.

The swimming track in particular, huddled behind the sea wall on the southern side of Male’, perhaps epitomises the uniqueness of the Maldives and the issues it faces in terms of sports and leisure.

It contrasts with the newly built Aquatics Centre in London evinces what is truly special about the Olympic Games.

The extent of the facilities in Male’ is amply displayed by the fact that the last point of departure for Bedford’s two newest residents was not the Maldives, but Sri Lanka, where they have been preparing for their events.

Similarly, the Maldives’ Badminton entrant, Ajufan, lives and trains in Malaysia after winning a scholarship from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Ajufan is the first Maldivian to qualify for an Olympic event – with all previous representatives being entered as wildcards. He will travel to the United Kingdom one week before the games so as not to interrupt his training schedule.

The Maldivian team will move onto the campus of Bedford University at the start of July and will have the opportunity to stay at the Olympic Village from July 18.

There they will join 17,000 other athletes, just a stone’s throw away from the main Olympic venues in east London.

In addition to the five athletes who will compete at the games, three more training places were made available to the Maldives’ National Olympic Committee (NOC).

These places have been taken up by two table tennis players, Mueena and Shiura, and a second badminton player Shabeen.

Olympic Spirit

This summer will be the Maldives 7th appearance at the games, having first appeared in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

The Maldives has never appeared on any medals tables, however, and only the most optimistic of Maldivians would anticipate seeing their compatriots atop any podiums this summer.

But to look only at this aspect of the event is to miss the bigger picture of the games – to see only the tip of the iceberg.

Whilst it is unlikely that these athletes will return home with medals round their necks, they will undoubtedly be carrying experiences in their hearts which will last long after the gleam of the medals has faded.

It is likely that these athletes from smaller nations such as the Maldives will gain far more than those medallists from more developed nations – both personally and professionally.

“It is a huge exposure – it is so important to experience new cultures,” said Marzook.

All of the Maldives’ competitors are under 24 years of age, with two of the team only 18.

The athletes have been warmly welcomed into the Bedford community which will be firmly behind the Maldivians during the games – 100,000 Bedfordians will make a useful addition to the 300,000 Maldivians back home.

Pilgrim’s School in Bedford has celebrated the coming games with its own Olympic Games programme. The Maldivian team were invited to both the opening and closing ceremonies.

During the opening ceremony, the team had the chance to meet one of Britain’s medal hopefuls, Jessica Ennis, who currently ranks number one in the world in the heptathlon (see title picture).

The Olympic team’s coaching has been organised by Howard, who has also arranged training partners to ensure that the team makes the most of its time in Bedford.

“To complement their hard training regime, the athletes undertake visits to schools to inspire their pupils, who, when they know that Azuneem may run against Usain Bolt in the 100m, immediately recognise a star in their presence,” said Howard.

The games will also have a profound impact on the team’s athletic development, as Howard explained.

“All the athletes are working hard, learning new techniques and benefitting from the coaching that we are providing,” he said.

Table-tennis player Mueena agreed: “Our training is going extremely well – this is the best coaching we have ever had and we are working really hard to improve our game.”

“I have learned some new strokes and, as a result, my overall game is improving all the time,” added Shiura.

Marzook of the NOC noted that the experience of these games will be vital for upcoming regional competitions, in particular the South Asian Games in February 2013.

“The ultimate aim is to win something in the regional games. These athletes will be key for the future,” he said.

The benefits of exposure to new techniques and fellow athletes can be seen in the progress of Ajufan since his move to Malaysia.

“Ajufan has gone from around 590th to 212th in the world rankings,” Marzook explained.

Similarly, the experiences of the Maldivian rowers at their own olympic qualification event in April showed the many ways in which such occasions can assist in the development of young athletes.

Despite the failure of the team to qualify, the team’s coach – and former British Olympic rower – Natasha Howard explained the benefits of having access to top class equipment and top class athletes.

“Both athletes are really enjoying themselves and getting the most out of being surrounded by professional sportsmen and women, asking lots of questions and building their knowledge of the sport.”

With the help of the Bedford community, the Maldives’ athletes will benefit immeasurably from their summer in Britain.

When the London games have drawn to a close, the Maldives team will undoubtedly be bringing the Olympic Spirit home with them, though they will probably want to leave the weather behind.


Maldives rowing represented at Olympic regatta in South Korea

A renaissance of rowing in the Maldives continued this week as two students from Addu Atoll travelled to Chungju, South Korea, to compete in the Asian 2012 Olympic Qualification Regatta.

The pair, Ibrahim Sharu-u from Feydhoo School and Fathimath Hasna Hassan from Addu High School, are competing in the men’s and women’s singles sculls events which began on Thursday.

The team’s coach Natasha Howard, former Olympic rower for Great Britain and World Championship bronze medallist, hopes the event will enhance the competitor’s knowledge of their own sport as well as raising international recognition of the Maldives’ potential as a rowing nation.

“Both athletes are really enjoying themselves and getting the most out of being surrounded by professional sportsmen and women, asking lots of questions and building their knowledge of the sport,” said Natasha.

“I hope our invitation to participate in the 2012 Asian Olympic Qualification Regatta will raise awareness not only within Addu but also within National bodies such as the National Olympic Committee (NOC), that the Maldives has the potential to compete on an international level through rowing,” she continued.

The successful teams at the South Korean event will go on to compete in this summer’s London Olympics. Competition has been hard with Hasna and Sharu-u competing against teams able to train full-time using professional equipment.

Additionally, many of the athletes are 20-40 kilograms heavier than their Maldivian opponents as well as often being a few inches taller – a great advantage in the sport.

Natasha believes the event’s real importance lies in terms of the sport’s growth in the Maldives and the personal development of the athletes involved: “Experience and knowledge gathering is what this regatta is about for us so that we can begin to build a truly competitive Maldives team over the next four years.”

“The great thing about being here is that every country has started in a similar fashion to the Maldives – coming to take part in their first ever international event when facilities and knowledge were still in their infancy so they can remember what it was like and are incredibly supportive of our team,” said Natasha.

“We will get to race four times over the next four days which is a fantastic opportunity for both athletes to build on each race. Our aim is for them to come off the water and able to say that they had nothing left to give and that was their best race to date.”

Long term development

The re-birth of rowing in the Maldives was given initial impetus after the British Olympic silver medallist rower Guin Batten became the first person to cross the Maldives’ Equatorial Zero Degree Channel in March 2010.

Batten became the first person to cross the 60 kilometre channel between Huvadhoo Atoll and the island of Fuahmulah. She holds the record for the fastest crossing, completing the feat in 7 hours 16 minutes.

The world-first attempt at crossing was supported by British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.

Batten subsequently arranged for two four-person ‘quad’ rowboats and several coaches to be brought to Thinadhoo and Ghadadhoo in 2010 with the support of BA, British Rowing and Westminster School. The Maldives High Commission in London also held a fundraising event to raise funds for the purchase and shipment of the equipment.

The first local rowing association had been set up in Thinadhoo after the then Province Minister for the Upper South Province, Umar Jamaal, visited the World Coastal Championships in Plymouth in October in 2009.

The following year, after Batten’s record-setting, the Maldives was welcomed as the 131st member of the International Rowing Federation (FISA).

“My ambition is to see [rowing] take off again in the Maldives, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other,” Batten said at the time.

Rowing was once the primary form of transportation between islands in the Maldives before the widespread introduction of diesel engines to the country during the 1980s.  Most Maldivians with practical rowing experience are now in their sixties.

In November 2011, the Maldives first ever inter-school rowing tournament was held in Hithadhoo, Addu Atoll, to coincide with the SAARC summit celebrations. Five local coaches were trained in order to facilitate the event which included all 12 schools in the atoll. Another inter-school competition is scheduled for this July.

The subsequent interest in the sport prompted the start of swimming classes for those wishing to begin rowing but who were unable to swim. Classes for around 100 people began in the months following the SAARC summit.

Swimming courses have also been held in Hulhumale’ in preparation for the sport’s introduction in North Male’ Atoll. Three boats arrived in 2011 and a boat house has been constructed. There are plans for a new coach to come out in 2012, according to the Maldives NOC.

In the long-term, it is hoped that local coaches will be able to continue to develop the sport. The International Rowing Federation (FISA) assists in such courses as part of its Olympic Solidarity programme which aids the global development of sport. It is hoped that courses to train 20 to 25 new coaches will take place in June or July of this year.

All expenses for the athletes competing in South Korea are being covered by the FISA and the South Korean government.

Secretary of the Maldives NOC Marzook said that Olympic Solidarity will provide $10,000 for the training. Marzook explained that rowing was a very expensive sport for a country like the Maldives: “Normally US$6000 is allocated for training in other sports.”

“Olympic Solidarity know we really need the money. They really want to develop rowing in the Maldives,” said Marzook.

Funding and equipment remain scarce while the sport continues to find its sea-legs in the Maldives. Natasha works on a volunteer basis and has her expenses are paid by Addu City Council. All the equipment used has been donated from clubs in the UK or bought with the proceeds from fund-raising events.

“We have four doubles (two man boats), one single and one quad (four man boat). We have no rowing machines. All the rowers are very aware of the need to treat what equipment we do have very well so that it lasts as long as possible. The quad we currently have we cannot use because it is too heavy to lift and requires a trolley to move it,” Natasha said.

The team are said to be taking full advantage of the equipment available in South Korea as well as learning from other athletes about how they train for competitive rowing.

Fortunately for the sport’s future, there has been no scarcity of enthusiasm for rowing in Addu. Training sessions are constantly oversubscribed with Natasha having to facilitate nearly 200 students with only nine operational seats.

The NOC’s rowing report described the plans to expand the sport from the student community to include greater sections of society.

“The future long-term sustainable success of rowing in the Maldives lies with having well trained enthusiastic coaches and involving all sections of the community within the sport,” said the report.


Maldives suffers defeat in Olympic football qualifier

The Hong Kong national football team yesterday managed to make the most of home advantage to defeat their Maldives counterparts 4-0 during the first-leg match of their opening qualifier for a place in the 2012 London Olympic Games.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) reported that the home side were able to take the lead by the second minute of the match with a goal from To Hon To, though the Maldives doggedly managed to keep the deficit to a single goal until the second half.

However, the floodgates opened at the Hong Kong Stadium on the 64th minute when defender Yuen Tsun Nam added to the home side’s lead, which was extended by two further strikes from James Ha in the 83rd and 86th minutes of the match.

The Maldives have another match to try and overcome the current score line, though the momentum for a place in the next stage of the Olympic Games qualifiers will be against them in the return fixture set for Male’ on 9 March.


Olympic rower to cross equator between atolls in world first

British Olympic rower Guin Batten says that while she loves visiting the Maldives, “like most people I get a little bored with just lying around on a beach.”

So during her next trip, on 29 March, the 42 year-old silver medallist intends to row 60 kilometres across the ‘zero degree’ channel that bisects the equator between Foammulah and Huvadhoo Atoll.

In the first ever attempt at the crossing in a rowboat, Batten expects to spend seven hours battling the swells, tides and currents of the Indian Ocean, in coastal rowing vessel just 78 centimetres wide and weighing 35 kilograms.

“The boat has an open stern and is designed so waves can break over it,” Batten explains. “The attempt will involve a lot of technical skill, and I have to make sure I don’t catch the waves with the oars. Ocean waves are long and slow, but there’s very little information available on the currents and conditions – I don’t think it’s going to be straightforward.”

Batten has been preparing by studying surf reports in the area, and expects the Somali current to be a formidable adversary (“that’s what gives the surfers their southwest swell”).

As far as madcap record-setting rowing enterprises go, Batten is well qualified. She holds the current world record – male or female – for rowing solo across the English Channel in an Olympic hull, in a time of three hours and 14 minutes.

But that was only 30 kilometres – half the distance she will face next week.

“As an athlete I’m designed to race two kilometres in seven minutes, not 60 kilometres in seven hours. It will be very different in style,” she predicts.

“Last weekend I rowed for five hours, and it was tough. Your hands get very sore from the blisters, and you go through the highs and lows.”

One of Batten’s major concerns during the equator crossing will be regulating her body temperature: “I’m coming straight from a freezing British winter to the lovely tropical Maldives where it’s 30 degrees,” she says, predicting it was very likely she would develop some level of heat exposure during the attempt.

“The critical thing is to make sure you drink enough and have enough energy on board. I’ll have to drink two litres of water an hour, and I’ll probably sweat more than that.”

Beyond her record-setting attempt, Batten says she hopes to inspire Maldivians to take up rowing again after it lapsed from the culture.

“I thought it was interesting that rowing used to be very popular here in the 80s – there were even competitions but they all died away.

“It’s a great tradition for a country like the Maldives to have – there’s a lack of space for sports [on land], but there’s so much beach and sea. We’re exploring how to bring over four-man rowing boats and start up a rowing club. My ambition is to see it take off again, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other.”

Batten’s trip to the Maldives next week might be a little less sedentary than that of most visitors, but she says it won’t be entirely beach-free: “I’ll just be getting a bit of exercise first.”

Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing is supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.