More than medals
For the swim team from the Maldives, just getting to the Asian Games is enough of an accomplishment. Alastair Himmer reports.
For the 142 swimmers from the Maldives competing in this year’s Asian Games, making it to Incheon was a significant accomplishment.
Their swimmers train in the Indian Ocean and the women football and handball players haven't managed a goal between them at the Asian Games, but the Maldives says it does not care about success - yet.
Getting 142 athletes from the poor islands, best known as a honeymoon paradise, to the Games in Incheon, South Korea, has already been an achievement, according to team leaders.
And a Muslim nation insisting that at least a third of the team should be women has also raised eyebrows among fellow Islamic states.
South Korean fans have taken to their hearts the athletes from a nation of less than 350,000 who have yet to win a medal at the Asian Games or Olympics.
The swimmers are often still battling in the pool long after rivals have finished. The women's footballers conceded 38 goals in three matches without scoring and Japan beat their handball team by a
I am not thinking about medals at these Games, what I want is to take these women out of the kitchen and
But Maldives Olympic Committee secretary general Ahmed Marzooq said the results do not matter.
"Just before we came I told the athletes that there would be criticism and comments. But I told them, ' We don't care about any result that comes, just perform, just enjoy the Games.'" In an indication of the difficulties their athletes face, swimmers Nishwan Ibrahim and Aishath Sajina have to train in the Indian Ocean - at night - off the capital Male.
"We swim in the sea and there's a current and lots of rubbish, and it's dark," Ibrahim said. "We don't have any swimming pools. It's really different from the pool here. It's difficult in the pool, the sea is more buoyant." Ibrahim got a standing ovation after clocking two minutes, 45.23 seconds in the men's 200 metres medley heats, in his first ever attempt at the event.
But after completing the last lap in complete solitude to finish over 45 seconds behind the quickest qualifier, Ibrahim discovered he had been disqualified for an illegal turn.
"It kind of sucks because I was last!" he said with a smile.
Coach Ismail Faruhaan said swimmers train in a 25m ocean pool fashioned from floating blocks for sides and touchpads. They share it with fish and coral.
"Back home we don't have any facilities to practice turns," he said.
"The swimmers have to focus on the currents and they don't know when they're going to touch the pads because it's dark. Most of the time they crash into them." "The first time I went to the deep end I felt really scared," said Sajina.
"I didn't like the fish and stuff. I wanted to get out as soon as possible." But now she is a leader in the biggest contingent the Maldives has ever taken to an international sporting event.
Sajina swam almost two lengths of the pool alone in the women's 4x100m freestyle relay and triggered an enormous cheer when she stopped the clock almost a minute and a half behind heat winners Japan.
"It felt motivated when I heard them," she said with a giggle. "I think I swam even faster. It felt good." Olympic committee chief Marzooq has motivated funding from foreign governments and sports bodies to get the swimmers and others to Incheon.
Some of that is being used to press a minimum 33 per cent quota for women in all Maldives teams going to international contests. There are more than 50 in this team, while Saudi Arabia has none and just 20 per cent of Iran's squad is women.
"There is some opposition," Marzooq said. Other Olympic Council of Asia representatives confirmed that the Maldives had made some other Muslim nations nervous.
But Maldives has no regrets, despite all the slow swims and the conceded goals.
"It has changed a lot how women do sport," said Marzooq. "The girls now know that there is a chance for them to go out of the country to perform.
"It gives them life skills. I can see their confidence building. I am not thinking about medals at these Games, what I want is to take these women out of the kitchen and empower them," he said.
Trailblazer: Maldives' Mubal Azzam Ibrahim competes in the heats for the men's 400m freestyle event during the 17th Asian Games in Incheon. AFP/VNA Photo