Mike Rowbottom: Meeting a guiding light in Doha; Qatar's first prospective female Olympian
Saturday, 12 May 2012
Scheduled for later in the afternoon is Kenenisa Bekele, three times Olympic champion, five times world champion, eleven times gold medallist at the World Cross Country championships and multiple world record holder.
Little wonder, then, that Noor Hussein Al Malki (pictured above and below far left) should look a little reticent in such company. But while this 17-year-old sprinter from Doha has not yet produced performances remotely close to those of her illustrious fellow competitors – her personal best stands at 12.73sec – she has nevertheless made her mark upon athletics, and upon sport, as she – and swimmer Nada Arkaji (pictured below, second left) – have become the first Qatari women ever to be selected for a Olympic Games.
As if that were not enough of an honour to rest upon her slight shoulders, Al Malki has also been named as one of the Athlete Ambassadors for Qatar's bid for the 2020 Olympics. When I ask her whether she can imagine competing at the Doha Olympics, she rolls her eyes slightly towards her translator, but then responds gamely and with a beguiling sideways smile.
"I hope to take part in competition on my home soil in 2020," she said. "It would be an honour for me – and an honour for Qatar to host the Games."
For now, however, it is enough for Al Malki, to concentrate on her training within a 15-strong group of female Qatari athletes, operating now for five years. She is not about to be thrown to the lionesses – she will not be toeing the line in the upcoming meeting. Instead she is concentrating her energies on staying fit and improving her performance.
"I know I am not capable of sparkling performances in London," she said. "First I want to break my national record and become an Arab champion in the 100m, and then to see myself winning Asian and international competitions."
Al Malki may be breaking a sporting mould, but she insisted that she has not been made to feel an oddity in her home land. Asked what the general reaction is when she tells people here that she is a full-time athlete, she smiles and replies: "It's normal," adding that she has been constantly supported by both her mother and father.
She clarified her family position with another smile. She is the youngest of six daughters and six sons.
"My parents and my family have done everything for me," she said. "They organised my sports programmes, they were my early coaches." Her mother has been active in sport, albeit in a more traditional exercise context. One of her sisters has helped her by training with her.
It seems that for Al Malki, talent and undreamt off opportunity have all combined through propitious circumstance. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.
"I am too much lucky," she said, very gravely. "To have this opportunity at this level. I am going to work very hard to make myself better in future."
Abdullah Al Zaini, President of the Qatar Association of Athletics Federation, commented: "Female athletes are supported by the Qatar Athletics Federation because women are very important to sport in Qatar and especially in athletics.
"Al Malki is very young and not so experienced so she will not expect to win in London, but she is showing to the people of the world that we are on the right path and encouraging females in sport and not just concentrating on the men in athletics."
In more recent times, Al Malki's sporting progress has been guided by Naima Ben Amara (pictured below right with Al Malki), a former international distance runner from Tunisia.
"Noor is a big talent," Ben Amara is reported as saying. "Since the day I met her she gave me the impression that one day she could become a professional athlete."
Although Al Malki's progress since she showed outstanding ability as a 12-year-old has not been completely smooth – she had to take two breaks from her sport, one lasting four months, was for personal reasons – she now appears well set in her historic lane.
Asked if she had any message for other Qatari girls or women who wanted to pursue sporting careers, she replied: "I want to tell all Qatari girls and women that sport is very good. I want to show all people that sport is very important and we should support all who want to take part in it."
She is happy to accept that she is now a symbol to others.
Inevitably, the question emerged: what would she want to say to regimes other than Qatar who continue to deny females the right to compete in sport as males do?
Not an easy one for a 17-year-old, that one. She handled it with grace.
"Pray for me!" she responded.
"Noor", in Arabic, means "Light". Here is a girl living up to her name.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.