On the UAE’s winter weekends, the sight of men, women and children competing in triathlons is increasingly common. Dedicated amateurs are finding sporting sanctuary in treading the pavements, pedals and waves of the emirates. The growth of triathlon is obvious to those who see the packed shorelines of the UAE and in 2022, the sport’s annual showpiece arrives in Abu Dhabi.
Back in September, Abu Dhabi was announced as the host city of the 2022 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final. A commitment to raising the sport’s profile was one of the key criteria for awarding hosting rights and the UAE capital has certainly shown that in recent years. It has hosted the ITU World Triathlon Series in each of the past four years, with the latest incarnation held at Yas Marina on March 8-9.
That experience meant choosing Abu Dhabi was an easy decision for the Executive Board, according to ITU Sport Director Gergely Markus.
“I think it was always the ambition for Abu Dhabi to bid for the Grand Final,” Markus tells Sport Industry Insider. “It was the right time after a few years of hosting the World Triathlon Series events and the commitment from the government and from the Abu Dhabi Sports Council has been outstanding.
“We love to take triathlon in non-traditional markets so that both the professionals and amateurs can explore new places and we can encourage the sport to be more popular in the region. In 2022 there will be up to 4,000 amateurs coming to Abu Dhabi from all over the world to compete. It is a bigger step and will bring a bigger economic impact.”
Beyond the welcoming of sports tourists in 2022, the economic footprint of triathlon may also be felt by an increased investment in the sport from both competitors and sponsors.
“For a sponsor, triathlon is a great association to have,” Markus explains. “It is a growing brand that is that is clean, healthy and environmentally friendly. It is a consumer sport so of course we have many sponsors around the sport which are consumer brands. Asics is one of our key global partners.
“But then we also have [Japanese company] Nippon Telegraph and Telephone as another great partner. We feel that triathlon is an attractive sport to activate around and are working on some other new sponsorship deals at the moment.”
Should current triathlon growth continue, the UAE may well have shaken off its “non-traditional market” tag by 2022. There are already a variety of events available at the amateur level, while the annual ITU World Triathlon Series meet in Abu Dhabi has become a much admired addition to the UAE sporting calendar for spectators and participants alike.
“Triathlon is quite clearly growing in the Middle East,” Markus says. “We can see this through the number of events hosted in the region – not just the main ITU event but the numerous other amateur events that take place in Dubai, in Bahrain, Oman.
“There is a growth but I think there are still things to do to make sure we have more grassroots opportunities for young local talent to improve in the sport. This is one of the goals for the UAE and is an important goal for us at the ITU too – to develop the sport in the Middle East. We have seen high participation from expats but want to see more local athletes, particularly young kids.”
The question of elite events vs grassroots investment is at the heart of any sport’s attempts to make waves in a new market. It can often seem a ‘chicken and egg’ situation with no clear winner but Markus believes a combination of approaches is necessary for success.
“The two have to run in parallel,” he explains. “If you just have a high-profile event and nothing to back it up at the grassroots level it is not effective. But equally if you just work on the grassroots level you may miss out on the publicity and the inspiration that comes from watching professionals compete.
“We are quite fortunate in triathlon that we can do both at the same time to a degree. It is in our DNA that, since triathlon was born, the best athletes compete alongside those who are trying the sport for the first time.
“Of course with the sport getting more developed it is not possible to compete at exactly the same time but amateurs and professionals are experiencing the same conditions, the same finishing line. Maybe a pro beats me by minutes, or by more than an hour, but I can still compare my performance to the best. This is a very important element of our sport and is a big asset.”
The Middle East has thus far not proved a breeding ground talent for professional triathlon, with just six Arab athletes in the top 500 of the men’s world rankings and only one in the women’s top 500. Of those seven, four are Moroccan – meaning that the Middle East’s sole male representatives are Mohamed Masoo of Syria (238) and Lawrence Fanous of Jordan (398), while female athlete Basmla Elsamoney of Egypt (174) is the highest ranking Arab competitor.
Elsewhere, UAE-based Egyptian Omar Nour is an ever-present on the local triathlon scene. A former professional triathlete and now motivational speaker, Nour has become somewhat of a poster boy for the sport in the region.
“Of course icons are important,” Markus says. “To be a hero and someone the kids can look up to is important. Omar does some incredible work in the community to build the profile of triathlon. He is popular and charismatic – someone who can help a lot in making the sport even popular in the Middle East.”
Congrats Abu Dhabi – set to host the ITU Grand Final in 2022! An awesome next step for the Emirate after hosting the season-opening WTS race for the past 4 years – excited to see how this positively affects the growth of triathlon here in the UAE and wider GCC. https://t.co/XsSZ1Fi6YK
— Omar Nour (@omarnour) September 16, 2018
For that to happen, new heroes will likely have to emerge – athletes who can compete at the very highest level alongside existing stars like British brothers Jonny and Alistair Brownlee or Spaniard Mario Mola. But while there is a notable lack of Middle Eastern representation in triathlon at present, Markus is optimistic that it will change in time.
“We must remember that the sport is still very young in the Arab world. Once we would see people coming into triathlon late, often from other sporting disciplines. But now, the best triathletes started triathlon as kids which means the level is much higher and it is much harder to break through.
“Given the sport has only recently grown in the Middle East, there is obviously going to be a gap before the best athletes emerge. I wouldn’t panic that we haven’t found those high-level athletes from the region yet.
“The development is a long process but as long as we continue to work with national federations to provide the right opportunities for young athletes to shine, I believe these athletes will come through. Hopefully at the 2022 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final we will see Middle East representatives in the professional event.”