His special love for athletics remains

K. P. MOHAN

NATIONAL flag in hand, he jumped over a hurdle and rushed to the track to hug the newly-crowned metric mile champion of Asia. Moments later he would hand over the flag to the winner for him to take a lap of honour.

Mohamed Suleiman seemed to have passed the 'family baton' on to his younger brother, Abdulrahman who had just won the 1500 metres in the Asian athletics championships in Colombo.

As young Abdulrahman and his team-mate Yousuf Jamal Noor, who won the bronze, took off on their victory lap, to the cheers of the packed gathering at the Sugathadasa Stadium, the elder Suleiman moved away into the stands. Quietly. The moment had come and gone and now he had other chores to attend to, in his role as the manager of the Qatar team.

Mohamed Suleiman continues to be closely associated with Qatari athletics.-RAJEEV BHATT

Not many seemed to have grasped the significance or soaked in that precise emotional moment; for that matter not many knew who that man in 'casuals' was. It did not matter to Mohamed Suleiman, though. He was overjoyed that a family tradition has been maintained.

"You have done the family and the country proud", Mohamed Suleiman told Abdulrahman. In the years to come, Abdulrahman might carry on the family tradition. Maybe.

This was the sixth gold for the Suleiman family from the Asian championships, the five ahead of Abdulrahman having been bagged by Mohamed Suleiman whose impressive streak in the metric mile was only spoilt by an ill-advised move to try and win the 5000m in Manila in 1993. Otherwise, after the bronze behind Indians Bahadur Prasad and Ram Niwas in New Delhi in 1989, and beginning with the gold in Kuala Lumpur in 1991, Mohamed Suleiman had won everything at the Asian level in this event, the three Asian Games in Beijing, Hiroshima and Bangkok included. He won the 5000m, too, at the Beijing and Bangkok Games.

"The Japanese kept the 1500 and 5000 finals on the same day in Hiroshima. Just to prevent me from winning both," said Suleiman, still disappointed about that scheduling eight years ago, as we caught up with him at the team hotel the day after the Colombo championships.

At the age of 31, after running the final of the Sydney Olympics 5000 metres, finishing 14th out of 15, in 13:45.10, Suleiman had dumped his spikes on the track at Stadium Australia, and said goodbye to athletics. Not exactly, for, he continues to be closely associated with Qatari athletics in his role as a Vice President of the federation. In fact, he, former sprint record holder and champion Talal Mansoor and the quarter-miler, Ibrahim Ismail, are all involved in the development of athletics in Qatar. No wonder, Qatar athletics is stronger than ever before.

"You lose something past 30 years", said Suleiman about his retirement at a time when one would have expected him to go for another distance gold in the Asian Games this year.

"It is better to retire when people remember you rather than when you are finished as an athlete," said the man who still owns five Asian records, including the 3:32.10 for the 1500m, set in Zurich in July, 1997.

The secret of his domination in Asia, Suleiman explains, was borne out of the confidence that he was the best. "I went into every race in the Asian Games and Asian championships thinking that I can't lose at the Asian level," said Suleiman. A 13:50.22 for the 5000m gold at Bangkok four years ago was the result of such abundant confidence in one's own ability. He was, in any case, favoured to win the 1500m. And he did.

But Suleiman feels he could have done better at the world level in the 1500 metres but for not getting the right competitions at the right time. "I could have run better than 3:32. But I didn't get the right competition, not even in the Grand Prix meets."

His crowning glory, of course, was the bronze in the 1500 metres at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, behind Spaniard Fermin Cacho and Moroccan Rachid El Basir.

"Many athletes have won many medals for my country. But I will always be remembered for winning the first Olympic medal (and the only one so far) for Qatar. Thank God I did something good for my country. An Olympic medal is considered very big in my country. Now, people recognise me and say, oh, Mohamed you did very well."

Among all the medals that the Suleiman family had since Mohamed won the Asian junior championship silver in 1986, the one missing was a medal from the World championships, junior or senior. Abdulrahman realised that with his silver in the metric mile at the Kingston World junior championships in July. The Asian senior gold was only a natural progression.

"I came very close to winning a medal in the World championships. Twice. At Stuttgart (1993) I was fourth and at Gothenburg (1995) I was fifth. I am very happy we have this medal (Abdulrahman's silver at Kingston) in the family. Now we have all the medals, Arab, Olympics, World Cup, Asian Games, Asian junior and Asian senior. I am very happy with what my brother did. Insha Allah, he can do what I did. At his age, he is better than what I was."

Suleiman is looking forward to an encore from Abdulrahman at the Asian Games in Busan. Not just that, the elder Suleiman is also looking forward to Qatar edging China for the gold tally at least in the men's section.

"We cannot challenge China in the overall (athletics) medals tally since they will be competing in men's and women's. But we can make an effort in the men's. They had 10 in Colombo in total. We had eight."

He felt that the 800m was lost by a Qatari (World junior silver medallist Salem Amer Al-Badri) in Colombo because of tactical mistakes. "I told the boy, you have lost a gold, but you must have learnt something today. These are the Asian championships. In Busan we don't want you to lose this gold medal."

Suleiman also felt that in long jump, too, the Qatari, Abdullah Al-Waleed, the World junior champion this year, had performed well below expectations. At 7.75 Al-Waleed was sixth in Colombo. He had reached 7.99m at Kingston.

Suleiman gives all the credit for the overall improvement of Qatari athletics to his country's Emir. "He has a special love for athletics," he says. He is happy too about the way he had been treated. He got promoted from corporal to lieutenant after his Olympic bronze and now he is a two-star lieutenant. "I am okay in my life," he says.

Son Khalid is nine years old now. "He likes football. I will leave it to him what he wants to become. I don't want him to come into track and field. Athletics is not easy. It is very hard to become a world-class runner. You have to train very hard. But he must become a sportsman," says Suleiman.

Whether young Khalid goes onto become a world-class athlete or a footballer, the Suleiman legacy will continue for quite some time in Asian athletics. Apart from Abdulrahman, another brother, Nasser, a distance runner, won a bronze (5000m) in Colombo. A third brother, Osman, is a half-marathon runner at the international-level. No, the list is not over; there is one more waiting on the wings from a family of nine brothers and six sisters. Suleiman rated his youngest brother, Abdul Fatah, even higher than Abdulrahman. The Taib family is surely the No 1. athletics family in Qatar.