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Up and running towards Barcelona.

The international community is gearing itself up for the four yearly Olympic games which will kick off in Spain this month. Countries from around the globe will be dispatching their best sportsmen and women to Barcelona where this year a significant number of athletes from the Middle East will join their ranks. Phil Minshull reports.

With the four-yearly Olympic sports festival only weeks away, hopes are high across the Middle East that Barcelona '92 will bring an unprecedented medal haul. Leading the way will be athletes including Morocco's Said Aouita, who ranks as possibly the most versatile distance runner of all time. Aouita, aged 32, was written off by many after two years of injury but after setting a world indoor 3,000 metres record in March, the 1984 5,000 metres Olympic champion is back to his best form. "I think I will do even better in the future. The old lion is not dead," he quipped ater achieving his latest record.

Barcelona will give Aouita the chance to make amends for his disappointing result in Seoul, four years ago, when he did not live up to his pre-Games hype. The athlete went into the 1988 Olympics holding a plethora of records including world bestt for 1,500, 2,000, 5,000 metres and two miles but had to settle for a solitary bronze medal in the 800 metres as Kenya's Paul Ereng strode away to a brilliant and unexpected victory. Further medal ambitions died when he pulled out of the 1,500 metres semi-finals with a hamstring injury.

Aouita wants to contest who events in Barcelona. The timetable will not allow a realistic attempt at combining 1,500 and 5,000 metres so his options are over 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres or the 800/1,500 metres double he tried in Seoul. Whichever he chooses, he will find a few young lions ready to pounce on him.

Aouita's compatriot Khalid Skah will be looking to return to the top of world distance running after having to relinquish his World Cross Country title in March. After being the 10,000m world number one in 1990 last year he could only manage a bronze in the World Championships in Tokyo. In Seoul, Brahim Boutaib took advantage of Aouita's demise to soar to the top of the Moroccan popularity charts with his win in Seoul over 10,000 metres. Still only 25, Boutaib would relish the chance of facing Aouita over the longer distances. There is little love lost between them. Boutaib felt hard done by when he received only a fraction of the riches lavished on Aouita after his triumph in Los Angeles. A delighted King Hassan gave Aouita a villa, cash and made his new national hero a Knight of the Order to the Alawite Throne, an honour previously reserved for foreign heads of state. Even the Rabat-Casablanca express train was renamed "The Aouita".

Aouita's success in the last decade has inevitably influenced a generation of young Arab runners. Among them the 22-year-old Algerian Noureddine Morceli. Morceli is the man Aouita has tipped as his heir apparent and is currently favourite for the 1,500 metres title in Barcelona.

"I was the runner of the 1980s, Morceli will be the one for the 1990s," said Aouita two years ago. As if to confirm his prediction Morceli took the world crown over 1,500 metres, last year in Tokyo.

Morceli now has his mentor's seven-year-old 1,500m world record in his sights. "Aouita said to me, |You have the same talent as m. You are the one who can break my 1,500 metres world record.' That makes me feel confident," Morceli revealed.

Aiming to emulate Morceli will be Hassiba Boulmerka who won the women's 1,500m world championship. Coupled with Morceli's triump. Algeria became the first country to provide both winners of the metric mile in a major competition.

Boulmerka has cast aside the criticisms directed at her by Algeria's fundamentalist Front Islamique du Salut. Her sin, in their eyes, is running "half-naked" in just running shorts and vest. Unfazed, she pointed out that full cover apparel might restrict her running style.

Qatar also have a pair of young athletes who have the talent to put the Gulf state on the world athletics map. In the World Championships 20-year-old Ibrahim Ismael made the semi-finals on the 400m while Mohammed Sulieman went one step further and finished ninth, behind Morceli, in the 1,500 final. Sulieman has a good chance of winning Qatar's first ever Olympic medal.

Meanwhile, Oman's Mohammed al Malky will be hoping to put a year of injury behind him and make it to the starting line of the Barcelona 400m. A finalist in the last Olympics he hopes to recapture the form that took him into the world top ten rankins for he event in 1988 and 1989.

At least Ismael, Sulieman and Al Malky know that if they are fit they will be on their way to Barcelona. Less certain are many of their Egyptian counterparts. Egypt's sports minister, Abdel-Momein Emara, has decided to cut down the number of Egyptian competitors from around 160 to just 84. "Egypt has no hope of winning any medals," Emara announced in May, "If it does, it will be a fluke." The figures seem to agree with his harsh analysis. The only medal since 1960 came when Mohammed Ali Rashwan won a silver in the 1984 judo competition. Emara noted the Egypt sent 234 spotsmen and women to Los Angeles that year.

Not surprisingly, Egyptian sports associations have reacted angrily to the suggestions that their athletes are a bunch of deadbeats. "He's blaming the athletes for the council's mismanagement," said Major General Hani Abdel-Al, head of the Egyptian Judo Federation.

Among those attempting to prove Emara wrong will be Saeed Khalil. He is the current national and Mediterranean weightlifting champion in the 100 kilogrammes category. The boxers Emil Abdel-Nour and Kabary Abdel-Karim, who both just missed out on medals in Seoul four years ago, are also expected to do well. The Egyptian soccer team, who arrived via the African qualifiers after knocking out Zimbabwe, Malawi and Sudan are also in with a chance of medals.

The soccer tournament appears to be wide open although Italy and the hosts, Spain, start as slight favourites. Egypt will face Qatar, winners of the final round of the Asian qualifying competition with four 1-0 wins, Spain and Colombia in their opening group. Kuwait also take to the pitch after clinching the final place from the Asian qualifiers, through goal difference. It will be their finest hour in sport since they qualified for the 1982 World Cup but they have a hard task ahead trying to make the quarter finals. Italy, Poland and the United States are their first round opponents.

However, the presence of Kuwait should be a cause for celebration on its own. After the Gulf War several leading players who were held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait went into warm-up matches wearing shirts with the slogan "Do not forget our hostages".

Elsewhere medals will be elusive. Middle East countries will be sending participants in many of the 28 sports (including the three demonstration sports) but the only other realistic chances of climbing the podium are if Syrian and Iranian boxers, weightlifters and wrestlers can raise their game to medal status.
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Title Annotation:Middle East athletes in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
Author:Minshull, Phil
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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