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Medals don't matter to the Maldives

Updated: 2014-09-25 07:02
By Agence France-Presse in Incheon, South Korea (China Daily)

Their swimmers train in the Indian Ocean and their women's soccer and handball teams 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 opened their hearts to the athletes from a nation of less than 350,000 which has 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 soccer players conceded 38 goals in three matches without scoring and Japan beat its handball team by a huge 79-0 margin.

But Maldives Olympic Committee secretary-general Ahmed Marzooq said 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 results that come. 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 200m medley heats, in his first ever attempt at the event.

But after completing the last lap in complete solitude to finish more than 45 sec behind the quickest qualifier, Ibrahim learned he was 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 25-meter 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 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 winner 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 percent quota for women in all Maldives teams going to international contests. There are more than 50 on this team while Saudi Arabia has none and just 20 percent of Iran's squad is female.

"There is some opposition," Marzooq said. Other Olympic Council of Asia representatives confirmed 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.

 

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