Championing athletics’ cause

K. MURALI KUMAR

“Earlier, when we competed as Asia in competitions against Europe, we got many gold medals. Now the medals don’t come. We need to develop athletics again in our region,” says Talal Mansour, who once ruled the sprints at the Asian level. By Nandakumar Marar.

Talal Mansour went to the 1984 Los Angeles Games as a member of Qatar’s 4x100m men’s relay team, which was making its Olympic debut. He then witnessed the women’s 400m hurdles final at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and marvelled at the performance of Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, who breasted the tape ahead of Judi Brown (U.S.) and Cristieana Cojocaru (Romania). India’s P. T. Usha finished a close fourth, beaten to the bronze by 1/100th of a second.

Later, the lanky Qatari met the lithe Indian more than once, at the Asian Games, Asian Athletics and across Europe during competitions. While Mansour strove to make a mark in the sprints among Asian men, Usha made forceful strides among Asian women. Mansour soon developed a great respect for Usha for raising the profile of Asian athletics.

Mansour, who started out as a relay runner, progressed to become Asia’s foremost sprinter. He won the 100m gold in three successive Asian Games (1986 Seoul, 1990 Beijing and 1994 Hiroshima). He also won a bronze medal in 60m at the 1993 World Indoors.

Mansour, who came to Pune recently for the 20th Asian Athletics Championship as a special invitee of the Qatar Athletics Federation, is happy that the presidency of the Asian Athletics Association has moved to his country (Dahlan al Hamad beat Suresh Kalmadi by two votes). He spoke to Sportstar on athletics in general and how his nation emerged as a force in Asian athletics.

Excerpts:

Question: Your reaction to Dahlan al Hamad of Qatar being elected President of the Asian Athletics Association?

Answer: Earlier, when we competed as Asia in competitions against Europe, we got many gold medals. Now the medals don’t come. We need to develop athletics again in our region. Mr. Dahlan has the ideas and the power (to develop athletics). He has the backing of the new Highness (Qatar’s new ruler Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani) who is a sportsman and will give anything for athletics. Not only Qatar, believe me, he will also build the Asian federation.

Qatar has emerged as a force in Asian athletics. When did this turnaround happen?

Mohammed Suleiman won an Olympic bronze for Qatar (1500m, 1992 Barcelona). I won a bronze in the World Championships (Indoors) and my name was known across the nation. Ibrahim Ismail (Asian 400m champion and finalist, 1992 Barcelona Olympics) made news for Qatar. Everybody was hooked to football until then, but our results made people follow athletics. Qatar is a small country, not too many people. Two or three high-class athletes are enough for people to get interested (in athletics). We tried to make athletics popular because here success comes from individual achievement, not team performance like in football or basketball.

Qatar has been taking athletes from Africa to win medals. Has it helped to promote the sport locally?

No. I am not with the Qatar federation on bringing athletes from outside. I opposed it and spoke against it in the media back home. Everybody was angry with me for speaking so openly, but now people understand and support me. These athletes come here to just make money and then go back. We need athletes from Qatar to compete for the nation with their heart, not for money. The federation has realised this. Now, I don’t say 100 per cent but at least 85 per cent of the athletes running for the country are Qataris.

African athletes win medals for Bahrain in international events (the 10,000m men’s and women’s winners in the 2013 AAC were Ethiopian-born Alemu Bekele and Shitaye Ishete). Does this make sense?

I am from Qatar, so can talk about my country. For answer to this question, you have to ask Bahrain.

Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim made news at 21 (the first athlete to clear 2.40m outdoors since 2000). Do youngsters follow him now? Is it possible to earn a living from athletics?

Barshim is popular with the people. Fifteen years ago, athletics was the number one sport in Qatar. Now I am fighting with footballers for training time at the national stadium (Khalifa Stadium) when the athletes are told to go out. We are fighting because the Qatari athletes show better results when compared with the footballers.

Sprinters at one point resembled body-builders on track. Now it’s all changing and those in the sprints are less muscular. What is the reason?

No control over doping earlier; there is more control now. There are more ways now to catch sprinters taking drugs to improve their performance. The doping control bodies like the World Anti Doping Agency are aware when athletes are in national camps, in team hotels or anywhere. If the testing people come and any athlete is not present, there is a big question mark against his or her name.

Your impressions on P. T. Usha?

Everybody knows her, especially our federation that likes athletes who bring results for their countries. Qatar likes to see such athletes getting the respect due to them after retirement from their national federations and the Asian federation. Usha and I were together in many competitions, the Asian Games, the Asian Track & Field and in some European meets. She was a talented athlete, a good woman at heart and like me, is passionate about athletics.