TOKYO: Only a few weeks ago, Yasmine Al-Dabbagh was an unknown Saudi sprinter with big dreams.
On Friday night, the whole world got to see her face as she, alongside Saudi rower Husein Alireza, had the honor of carrying Saudi Arabia’s flag at the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020.
For the 23-year-old, as for the rest of 33-strong Saudi Olympic delegation, there is no greater honor than representing her country.
“It means the world to me, especially being part of a diverse and expansive team representing so many different activities,” Al-Dabbagh told Arab News. “Everything from judo, to table tennis, rowing, karate, archery, weightlifting, swimming, shooting and football. The sports sector in Saudi Arabia has witnessed unprecedented growth and investment, thanks to Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman’s) Vision 2030.
“As Saudi athletes, we are all proud of the important role sports plays in the country’s transformation. We have a great sporting ecosystem, that allows us to perform at the highest level and I can’t wait to go out on the track, to repay that faith by performing to the best of my ability.”
Al-Dabbagh will make her 100m Olympic debut at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium on Friday, July 30, but had things worked out differently earlier in her life, she could now have been taking part in a different sport.
“Ever since I can remember, sports has always been my passion,” Al-Dabbagh said. “When I was a student at Jeddah Knowledge School, I loved everything from basketball, swimming, volleyball and gymnastics.
“Track and field held an especially exceptional place in my heart. It was running and the sound of my footsteps on the track that gave me a very specific feeling, and that feeling kept me coming back for more. It was a sense of being empowered, strong and self-confident.
“What also hooked me was that the challenge was on me,” she said. “As an individual sport, I love that you get out what you put in. It’s all on me. There is nowhere to hide. If I train well and put in the effort, I get the corresponding reward and absolutely love that feeling.”
Al-Dabbagh recalls that when she first started training, access to running facilities was a bit of a challenge, particularly for female athletes. This, she is proud to point out, is no longer the case.
“We are seeing massive investment across all sports in Saudi Arabia including women’s sports. The country is on the move with more people playing sports than ever before and personally I am extremely grateful (for) the support shown to me by so many, including Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the Ministry of Sport, the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and the Athletics Federation.”
At a time when female participation was still several years away from becoming widespread, and culturally more acceptable, across the Kingdom, she was lucky to have a family that believed in her unquestioningly.
“My family were and still are my biggest supporters and have always pushed me to pursue my dreams,” Al-Dabbagh said. “Whenever I felt doubtful or fearful, they were the ones who helped me overcome that. They always made sure that I knew that my dream of becoming an Olympian could one day be realized. I am so proud and humbled also, that the dream is now coming true.”
When vindication of her career path came, it could not have been from a more iconic source.
“My motto in life has always been to never give up,” she said. “As much of a cliché as that may sound, it genuinely helped me overcome many obstacles and fears to get to where I am today. I was told by one of my biggest idols, who is now my coach, Linford Christie, that I have the ability to make it to the Olympics. Ever since then, I have been working really hard to get to where I am today but this is only the start. As the saying goes, a journey of one thousand miles begins with one step. I consider this as a first step on a long journey to come, inshallah.”
Al-Dabbagh is particularly inspired by the American runner Allyson Felix, who has won a staggering 26 gold, eight silver and four bronze medals throughout her career. Six of those golds and three of the silvers were claimed in the Olympic Games, making her the first female runner in history to have that many gold medals for track and field. Fenix, who will also be at Tokyo 2020, will have a chance of breaking the world record of nine athletics gold medals held by her legendary compatriot, the sprinter Carl Lewis.
“The reason I admire Allyson so much is that in addition to her incredible success in sports, she is also a wife, mother, and founder of a brand that specializes in creating products for women by women,” said Al-Dabbagh. “The way she manages to balance different aspects of her life is an inspiration to myself and to many women all over the world.
“I would be amiss not to recognize our very own athletes at home,” she added. “In the runners department, Sarah Attar and Cariman Abu Al-Jadail, the equestrian Dilma Malhas and the swimmer Mariam Binladen.”
Al-Dabbagh only got the call to the Olympics three weeks before the start of Tokyo 2020.
“Earning a place at the Olympics means everything to me, and to do it through a ‘universality place’, breaking the national female record for the 100m race … I could not have asked for more,” she said.
“It is a culmination of many hours of difficult training, spanning across Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK. I even remember my 12th birthday being Olympics-themed … that is how much I wanted to be an Olympian, and I am truly ecstatic that this moment has finally arrived.”
When she steps onto the track at the Olympic Stadium in the early hours of Friday, she will be up against some of the best runners in the world, but after the disruptions of the last year, it is an experience she is relishing.
“I know I’m very inexperienced compared to my running competitors, but I see this as a positive,” he said. “I inevitably will gain so many lessons from the opportunity to be in Tokyo, on which I can hopefully build my future as an athlete. Just when I had hoped to dedicate 100 percent to training and competing, COVID struck so I’ve missed a lot of track time and many chances to race. But with this, I can only look forward to the Olympics and future events.
“Our world has gone through a rough 18 months, and I can’t wait to see sports bring together people from all walks of life, from all over the globe. I want to make sure I savor that moment and that it will propel my sporting career forward.”
Al-Dabbagh is not setting any specific goals at this stage in her career, but the landmarks keep coming just the same.
“My target is to always perform to the best of my ability,” she said. “I am working hard on a daily basis to represent Saudi Arabia in the best way possible. I am hoping to raise the bar that previous Saudi Olympians have set and to inspire even more young Saudis to pursue their dreams. I am already the holder of the national (100m) record and I’d like to improve upon that, and come back a better athlete. At this stage in my career and with my experience, I really see the games as a building block for the future, both for me personally, but importantly for the future of sports in the Kingdom.”