More than medals

For the swim team from the Mal­dives, just get­ting to the Asian Games is enough of an ac­com­plish­ment. Alas­tair Him­mer re­ports.

Viet Nam News - - Front Page -

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

them.” em­power

huge 79-0.

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

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