Next month, 34 young athletes will carry Qatar’s flag into the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the biggest team that this small desert nation has ever sent to the Games since the first Qataris entered back in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Participating in athletics, swimming, shooting, handball, equestrian and table tennis, the team members will join more than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries to compete before an audience of more than 4 billion across the world.
Qatar’s team may be new, but their passion, enthusiasm and talent isn’t to be underestimated. We meet the stars making their mark on the world's sporting stage...
Sport: High jump
“I was bad for a really long time. I’d go to training and I was bad. The next day [I’d be] even worse. I think I was just so stubborn, and I was patient and I always came back no matter what happened. I made a choice because I wanted to do the high jump.”
Barshim's athletic potential wasn’t immediately clear, until he made the second highest jump in world history – a whopping 2.43m, just two centimetres shy of the world record – sparking the hashtag #ThingsBarshimCouldJumpOver. He scooped a bronze medal at London 2012 and heads to Rio with his sights set on taking home gold (which would make him Qatar’s first ever Olympic champion).
“You can’t rush greatness,” he says. “If you want to be great, you have to take your time. Only a few people know that.”
Sport: Swimming: 50m freestyle; 100m freestyle
“I like the way you can control it and you can control your body through the water. It’s an amazing feeling. That’s why I chose to do swimming.”
Noah Al-Khulaifi is making his mark as the youngest ever Qatari Olympian. was just eight when he joined Qatar’s national team and has since gone on to break no less than 14 swimming records in the GCC (some of which were set by his younger brothers Yacob and Yousef).
As the youngest member of the Olympic team at just 17, Al-Khulaifi is one year away from graduating from Qatar Academy, so his intensive training – including 10 swim sessions a day – has to fit around a strict study schedule. He’s already setting his sights Tokyo 2020, where he aims to bring home a medal.
Sport: Swimming: 200m freestyle; 100m butterfly
"I encourage all the girls out there to not be afraid and to take risks… Nothing is going to get in your way if you love what you do."
Arakji made history when she became the first Qatari female Olympian at London 2012. But her passion isn't all that surprising. Her father, Mohamed Wafa Arakji, was on Qatar’s national football team as goalkeeper in the '70s and ‘80s, and played for Al Sadd FC – so Arakji always had an interest in sport, trying basketball, netball and ballet, among other things, before falling in love with swimming.
Rio 2016 will be Arakji’s second Olympic Games, and she hopes to reach a new personal best time during the competition. But her goals stretch far beyond the summer, to inspiring more young Qatari girls to take up sports and challenge the status quo.
“The historic moment being the first Qatari female to represent my country in the Olympics was really something big for me… a dream come true,” she says, adding, “it gives me such honour that I will carry with me forever. I’m just really proud and happy.”
Sport: Hammer throw
"I started training at a young age and I sacrificed a lot of things like going out with my friends, staying out late… But ultimately once you win, you don’t feel like you sacrificed anything at all. It is an amazing feeling."
The third Aspire Academy alumni to have qualified for Rio 2016, Ashraf Elseify’s talent was discovered by Coach Alexey Malyukov (coach of the 2008 Russian throwing team at the Beijing Olympics). “In 2010, the head coach asked me to test Ashraf, so I gave him a few exercises and after his first attempt I was sure he had the potential to become an incredible athlete. I had promised the federation that Ashraf would throw over 80 metres, but I was wrong,” Malyukov said, “he threw over 85 metres.”
Elseify says his time at the Academy taught him more than merely his sport. He learned English there, and how to be a leader, and after losing his father at a young age he says, “[Coach Alexey] is not just my coach, he is like a father to me.”
Elseify has won two world championships but Rio will be his first Olympic competition.
The Equestrian Team
Sport: Show jumping
The team: Sheikh Ali bin Khalid Al-Thani, Bassem Hassan Mohammed, Ali Al-Rumaihi, Khalid Al-Emadi, Faleh Al-Ajmi and Hamad Al-Attiyah
This year will see the first ever Qatari equestrian team compete at an Olympic games, coached by former Olympic show jumping gold medallist Jan Tops. Arabian horses are central to the culture and heritage of the whole region, so the team had to compete against talented riders from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to secure the sole qualifying spot for Rio.
Many team members grew up with equestrianism; Sheikh Ali – who is currently ranked 6th worldwide in the Longline Global Champions Tour – began riding horses on his uncle’s farm at the age of seven. Bassem Hassan Mohammed was in the saddle even earlier, at just five, before going on to place first in the Doha leg of the 2014 Longines Global Champions Tour, while Ali Al-Rumaihi started out riding his father’s pure-bred Arabian horses on his farm and now has a gold medal from the 2006 Asian Games to his name.
Training and exercising a horse without exhausting it, and fitting this in with the demanding training of the team is a tricky thing to get right, but having a close-knit team – who spend weeks at a time training at camps together in Europe – makes it all the easier.
“Winning as a team is something special for me,” says Sheikh Ali. “I have spent years with my teammates, we are like brothers.” At 20 years old, Hamad Al-Attiyah is the youngest member, and the youngest rider in history to qualify for a World Cup final at the age of 18.
“The Olympics is every equestrian’s ambition,” he said. “It is my life’s dream and I will give it everything that I have.”
Bassem Hassan Mohammed
Sheikh Ali Bin Khalid Al-Thani
The Handball Team
The team: Abdulrazzaq Ahmed Murad, Abdullah al-Kirbi, Goran Stojanovic, Rafael Da costa Capote, Zarko Markovic, Yousef Bin Ali, Kamal Mallash, Mahmoud Ahmed Zaky Hassaballa
“At the start of the World Championships no one was really expecting us to even get to the second round,” said team playmaker Kamal Mallash, “so it was an honour to reach the final of the Men’s Handball World Championship and make history as the first Arab team to get to that level.”
The team surprised the world when they took home the silver medal in a narrow loss to France. The team also won the Asian Championship title in 2014 before clinching a spot at Rio 2016 in the Asian qualifiers last December (since, they have gone on to win a second Asian Championship title).
The fast-paced team sport of handball remains relatively under-the-radar compared to other huge Olympic sports like athletics or swimming. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team more enthusiastic than Qatar's. “I think it’s more about work than about talent. You must work very hard to try every day to be professional and never give up,” says right-back player Zarko Markovic. The team trains twice-daily, including gym work, running, tactics and holistic training.
And the team are interested in more than just an Olympic medal. “Before the World Championships not many people here really knew about handball. But now more people are interested in it and every time we succeed we gain new fans,” Abdullah Al-Kirbi, 25, says. “We made a name for ourselves after the World Championships around the world which is something we need to preserve. It’s not about getting a silver or gold medal but preserving the reputation we made for ourselves.”
Rafael Da Costa Capote
Ones to watch
Femi Ogunode is, officially, the fastest man in Asia. He set an Asian record for the 100m sprint (9.91 seconds) in 2015, and has no less than four gold medals to his name from winning the 200m and 400m races in the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games.
Specialising in the 400m, at just 19 Haroun has already achieved a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championships in 2015. He also recorded the fastest indoor debut in history (45.39) and became the first man to run 500m in under 60 seconds.
Balla reached the semi-final in the 800m during London 2012, making Rio his second Olympic Games. He also won the gold medal at the 2013 and 2015 Asian Championships, and the 2014 and 2016 Asian Indoor Championships.
Another two-time Olympian, Mohamed al-Garni competed in the 1,500m race at London 2012. The 24-year-old has also won gold medals at the 2014 and 2016 Asian Indoor Championships, 2014 Asian Games, and the 2015 Asian Championships.
After winning numerous junior medals, Abubaker Haydar won his first senior race – the 4x400m relay – and set a new championship record at the 2016 Asian Indoor Championships. Haydar is an Aspire Academy graduate.
Rio 2016 will be the sixth Olympic Games for Nasser Al-Attiyah. He scooped the bronze medal in the men’s skeet event at London 2012 after a shoot-off against Russian Valeriy Shomin. He's also a competitive rally driver and won the 2011 Dakar Rally.
Hamed has represented Qatar in no less than 18 World Championships in the last decade, as well as in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. He brings a phenomenal ten years of competitive shooting experience to Qatar's team.
Qatar will have a representative competing in Judo for the first time this year. Morad Zemouri has competed in grand slams and continental championships in the under 73kg category and will head to the Olympics for the first time at the age of 24.
Sport: Table Tennis
Li Ping (formerly of the Chinese National Team) beat his Jordanian opponent in the Asian qualifiers to win himself a spot at Rio 2016, representing Qatar. Ping has been competing for more than 13 years and is currently ranked 26th worldwide.