Sami Al Kooheji, Air Arabia pilot and Bahrain’s best hope for gold at the Asian Games on what puts the wind in his sails
Time Out Bahrain staff
Bahrain has yet to make its mark on sport internationally. What are the country’s sporting strengths, and where could it improve? Considering the size of our country, I don’t think we’ve done so badly. We have had athletes qualify and compete in the Olympic Games, and in the last Asian Games and Pan Arab Games many of our athletes brought home medals. Our national football team has also done well by twice reaching the last stage of the qualifying round for the World Cup. But we need to target the youngsters in Bahrain – by getting them into sport at a young age we will be able to develop and train any exceptional talent. We have an olympic medallist out there, we just have to find him!
You sailed for Bahrain in the Athens Olympics and are the top ranked sailor in the GCC. Bahrain has a rich seafaring history, but today so few people in the Kingdom sail. Why? I think that it is because over the years the need to go to sea has become almost non-existent except for pleasure; motor boats are the first choice for most Bahrainis when they go out on the water, so as a nation we have almost lost our sailing skills. Fortunately we now have an enthusiastic national sailing team who work very hard to achieve top results in international regattas.
What’s the greatest challenge that aspiring Bahraini sports people face? The greatest challenge they face is getting funding to train and compete at international events. The General Organisation for Youth and Sport (GOYS) and the Bahrain Olympic Committee provide funding to all sporting organisations in Bahrain and support athletes as much as they can, but they have a limited budget.
You captain the Bahrain National Sailing Team and are heading to the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou in November. How do you think you’ll fare? It’s hard to tell at this point, but I’m optimistic that with the training and regatta plan I have I stand a good chance to come in the top five and hopefully even bring home a medal as long as I’m consistent throughout the races. The winds in Guangzhou are usually very strong, and that’s the way I like it. My main competitors are the athletes from China, Korea, and Japan - their sailors have already been training hard for the past few years, they also have the advantage of being able to train at the actual venues; they will be more familiar with the conditions.
How long before Bahrain brings back a sailing medal from the Olympic Games? I’d like to think we could win a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games, but this will only be a possible if we start on the new initiatives in Bahrain right away. We will have to focus on our young talent aged 10 and below. To compete at Olympic level requires a huge commitment from both the individual and government bodies. In some countries athletes are supported to train and compete with lottery funding, and whilst I appreciate that this is not possible in Bahrain we need to find a way to provide the necessary funding for our young athletes so they can dedicate the required time and effort to their sport. Olympian athletes need to consider their chosen sport as a career not just as a recreational pastime. The Sail Bahrain Project will go a long way towards this goal but to make sure it’s a success we need to back the project all the way. Sami will be hosting a fundraising night at the Bahrain Yacht Club (17 700 677) on June 3 from 7pm to raise money for Think Pink.Sami is sponsored by Air Arabia, BMI Bank and Audi Bahrain.