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Maryam aims to be our golden girl

June 20 - 26, 2007

Gulf Weekly Maryam aims to be our golden girl

IT has been a week of mixed fortunes for sports in Bahrain.

Where top cueist Habib Subah flattered to deceive at the Asian Snooker Championship in Pakistan by failing to make the quarter-finals, Maryam Yusuf Jamal flourished in Europe setting the year’s best time for the mile and winning the 1,500 metres race at the Oslo Golden League in the same week.
Subah’s performance was heartbreaking while Maryam’s heartening with the World Athletics Championships around the corner.
I have not met Maryam, who is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, but her story has always inspired me, in the same way that Olympic champion sprinter Wilma Glodean Rudolph’s did.
For a refugee who fled Ethiopia to escape political oppression, Maryam has done remarkably well. Born Zenebech Tola in Arsi, the village that also gave world long distance champion Haile Gebreselassie to athletics, Maryam sought asylum with her husband and coach Tareq Yaqoob (former Mnashu Taye) in Switzerland in 2002, according to the IAAF’s official web site.
Belonging to the ethnic Oromo group, the single largest group in Ethiopia but sidelined in mainline politics, Maryam began running at a very late stage, and out of compulsion rather than choice: to reach school which was a good 15 miles away and across hilly terrain.
But her precocious talent was evident right from the beginning. She even met the qualifying standards for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, but the Ethiopian Athletics Federation denied her permission to represent her home country.
Disappointed and desperate, Maryam sought Swiss citizenship, and failed. She even signed multiple citizenship papers with four other countries – Canada, Turkey, France and Bahrain. Maryam finally chose Bahrain nationality in 2005.
“We chose Bahrain because we knew some people living in Qatar, also athletes, who told us that Bahrain is a good place to be in,” I remember Maryam telling Bahrain TV soon after becoming a Bahraini citizen.
I am purposely recounting this story here… because there is no need to hide it anymore. Maryam is representing Bahrain legally after fulfilling all the IAAF rules and regulations, just like many other sports personalities around the world. And Maryam is laughing all the way to the tape, unlike others who have failed to fulfill their promises in their adopted countries.
The most famous example in the latter category is cricketer Graeme Hick, who coincidentally scored this 40,000th first-class run on Sundayplaying for Worcestershire in the English County Championship.
If you remember, England lovingly nursed and nourished Zimbabwe-born Hick as he completed formalities to switch alliance in the late 80s. But as a Test batsmen for England, Hick was a major disappointment. He just could not repeat his prolific county success at international level and remains an enigma to this day.
By contrast the 22-year-old Maryam has done more than enough to justify Bahrain’s faith in her. She made her mark winning the 3000m gold in Oslo in 2005, and since then has won three major gold medals in 1,500m for Bahrain apart from the golden double (800 and 1,500) at the Asian Games in Doha last year and a series of other honours around Europe in events ranging form 800m to cross country championships and half marathons.
But her sensational international exploits kicked an internal storm as well when a Bahraini MP raised objections to her dress code.
Maryam has overcome it with a change of sponsorship, and is now all set to go for gold at the World Athletics Championship to be held in Osaka, Japan, from August 25 to September 2.
Clocking the best time (4:22.34) of the year for the mile in Geneva earlier last week and winning the 1,500m with a time of 4:01.44 on Friday in Oslo should boost Maryam’s confidence further.
But the road ahead is still tough as she is way behind the year’s best time of 4:00.48 (set by Gelete Burkha of Ethiopia in Eugene, June 10, 2007).
The moot question is can Maryam break the barrier and make a mark at the world level. Rashid Ramzi did it at the 2005 World Athletics Championship in Helsinki winning a golden double, but many other leading Bahraini sports figures have stumbled outside the GCC and Asian circuit. Snooker champion Subah himself is a prime example.
Maryam too failed in her bid for world glory at the 2005 Helsinki Championships, finishing fifth in the 1,500m with a time of 4:02.49 against the winning time of 4:00.35 (Tomashova Tatyana of Russia).
Since then Maryam has broken the four-minute barrier with a personal best of 3:56.79 which again is below the world and Asian record of 3:50.46 set by China’s Yunxia Qu way back in 1993.
Maryam, however, has expressed confidence of winning in Osaka. She looks in the best shape among the present lot of 1,500m runners and is joint No 2 in the world. Let’s hope to see her as No 1 in Osaka.



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