Emirati Olympians frustrated by lack of support

Aug. 06, 2008, 10:35 p.m. (ET)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) State-owned companies in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates are spending millions of dollars to attract high-profile sporting events such as the Formula One Grand Prix and FIFA's club world championship. But they have shown little interest in using that avalanche of cash to develop local athletes or support the Emirati Olympic team.

Sports marketing experts say the companies are drawn to big name stars from high-profile sports such as golf and tennis that can draw international attention to the country, not unknown Emirati athletes competing in Olympic events such as taekwondo and judo.

That attitude has frustrated the country's only Olympic medalist, Sheik Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Hasher al-Maktoum, who believes that Emirati companies and the ruling families that control them should be motivated more by national prestige than profit.

Ahmed won a gold medal in double trap shooting in the 2004 Olympics in Athens but was so upset that his victory didn't spark more excitement and support for local athletes that he planned to skip the Beijing Games until two months ago.

"I was not willing to put in three years of my life, do it all by myself again and win a medal for my country," said Ahmed, 45.

At the last minute, he was persuaded to compete by his coach, Josh Lakatos, a U.S. Olympian who won a silver medal in double trap shooting at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

"The past four years have been very frustrating for him," Lakatos said.

Ahmed had hoped his gold medal would motivate the government to build a sports academy to train local athletes and would boost interest by companies in sponsoring the eight Emiratis headed to Beijing to compete in swimming, sailing, track and field, equestrian show jumping, taekwondo, judo and double trap shooting.

Four years later, the sports academy remains a dream. Only one Emirati company has agreed to sponsor the country's Olympic team - Abu Dhabi-based real estate developer Hydra Properties.

"I wish we had more (sponsors)," said Ibrahim Abdul-Malik, secretary general of the Emirati Olympic Committee.

Financial support is less important to Ahmed than the idea of national backing for the country's athletes. The Olympic champion and three of the other Emiratis competing in Beijing are wealthy members of the ruling family of Dubai, which has boomed in the last decade from a sparse patch of desert to the business center of the Middle East, complete with man-made islands and the world's tallest building.

Abdul-Malik said the country's ruling families provided some financial support for the Olympians, but both he and Ahmed were hoping for high-profile sponsorship from the large firms they control.

Companies in Dubai and the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, which has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, have stepped up competition with other rich Gulf states in recent years to sponsor the biggest and most prestigious sporting events.

There are so many company ads plastered across the walls at Dubai's annual thoroughbred race - the world's richest - that it is difficult to focus on the horses. Abu Dhabi will stage the country's first Formula One Grand Prix race next year, and Dubai will host the FIFA Club World Cup in 2009 and 2010.

But that commercial enthusiasm has not helped Olympians such as Ahmed who have struggled to attract attention in a country that does not have a strong local sports tradition outside of horse racing.

"The UAE is investing in athletes that attract TV coverage and make people come to Dubai," said Sean Ennis, a U.K.-based sports marketing expert who also lectures in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

High-profile sporting events "produce far greater returns for sponsors than the Olympics," he added.

The U.S. Olympic team has a mile-long list of official partners, sponsors, suppliers and official outfitters. But unlike the Emirates, the U.S. has many star athletes competing in high-profile sports in Beijing and has won more medals than any country in Olympic history.

There is less of a tradition of company sponsorship in small oil-rich Gulf states, where the governments have more than enough money to bankroll athletes who want to compete in the Olympics. The Emirates has a population of about 4.6 million - some 75 percent of whom are foreigners - and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Even Qatar, which made a failed bid to host the Olympics in 2016, is sending its 22-member team to Beijing without a single company sponsor, said Ravi Kumar, the editor of a local sports magazine. But the tiny Gulf nation of less than 1 million people has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build one of the world's most advanced sports academies to find and train local athletes - an initiative Ahmed and other Emirati athletes can only envy.

Emirati companies have not completely ignored the Beijing Olympics. State-owned real estate developer Nakheel is holding an exhibition at a Dubai mall highlighting the history of the Olympics and the country's participation. The exhibition includes weekly demonstrations of sports such as gymnastics and fencing.

Nakheel's event provides little solace for Ahmed, who had hoped for so much more. He said he will compete in Beijing but has little motivation to make it all the way through the competition and defend his title.

"If I make it to the next day, fine," he said. "If not, I will go and have a cup of coffee with my coach."