The club has only been up and running for just over four years, but Ultimate Athletics has got off to a flying start.
The Dubai-based track and field club was set up in March 2015 by Lisa Campbell, a former athlete who has turned her passion into a career. A promising athlete growing up in Wandsworth, South London, Campbell decided to turn her attention to teaching after making the tough choice to give up on her Olympic dreams.
She was head of physical education at GEMS Wellington International School in Dubai for five years and started an after-school athletics club when she realised there was nowhere in the city that catered for hungry young track and field athletes.
Ultimate Athletics was the natural next step to help passionate young athletes develop themselves. Based at Dubai Sports City, the club is now flourishing and has over 300 athletes competing across the six race nights that run from October until May.
With the fifth season set to get underway on October 31, Campbell is introducing new events to continue bolstering athletics in the Emirates.
“We’ve now got the long jump thanks to the new track refurbishment at Sports City. We can offer triple jump training too. We can use the high jump bed and modify it with pole vault poles for that event,” Campbell told Sports Industry Insider.
“We are also introducing special needs athletics in conjunction with Sports Heroes. Witnessing the Special Olympics in the UAE in March was inspirational, and we wanted to provide a free opportunity for special athletes to be coached in a supportive environment. Some of them are so talented.”
In addition to this, Ultimate Athletics will offer speed specific training for those whose primary focus is other sports such as football or rugby but who want tailored training to improve speed and agility.
With many talented athletes around the Emirates dusting off their spikes ahead of the new season, Abu Dhabi-based Kimbely Baptiste has emerged as one to watch from Ultimate Athletics.
The 26-year-old, who hails from Crawley in England, dominated 100m and 200m events last season and went on to clinch back-to-back sprint titles at the UK Inter-Counties and England Athletics Senior Championships in Manchester last month.
“I’ve been running with the guys in Dubai so I can stay competitive and get a push,” said Baptiste, who works as a sports co-coordinator in the UAE capital. “It’s not like I’m winning it, but the boys really push me so I can get my times down and it feels like I’m in the competition.
“Every year I’m trying to get my times down, improve on my performances and my technique. I would like to run for my country Guyana one day. I would like to do that in a few years’ time when I feel ready. But, for now, I want to focus on the season ahead.”
The UAE Athletics Federation is doing significant work at local level to generate an interest in the sport and has teamed up with Campbell for many events in the past, most recently for Global Running Day in June.
Over 500 people participated in the annual event at Sports City and the group ran laps collectively for one full hour, with the target of 100 miles set across the sixty minutes.
“We did the Global Running Day together with Mr Ahmad Al Kamali, UAE Athletics Federation and IAAF Council member, and there was superb turnout,” said Campbell.
“We are in contact with the UAE Athletics Federation a lot. We support the UAE Athletics Federation by sending our best athletes to compete for their teams also.
“If they are up to the standard to make the national team then they would be invited to race for local clubs. There is that avenue now. They are allowing expats on the local teams. That’s the first step.”
The UAE, with a near 90 percent expatriate population, has yet to follow the same path as other Arab neighbouring country and promote talented expat athletes, who are shining at local level, to the national side.
But the UAE Athletics Federation appears to be finally attempting to break the mould to allow non-Emirati athletes to compete at local level.
“There was a new law passed last year that allows expats to represent the UAE. They won’t be nationalised or given the UAE passport. It’s just for representation. It is progress and that is encouraging and motivating for the athletes,” said Campbell.
Baptiste was one of the few athletes invited to race for the Al Wasl Club last season on the back of her stellar domestic season. Despite only being in the UAE since August 2017, she welcomes the gradual changes for aspiring expat athletes racing in their ‘adopted’ country.
“I think it’s good,” Baptiste said. “If you’ve got residency then it shouldn’t be a problem. You’re not really running for the country so it’s not like you are representing the UAE in a sense, you are just running for the club and for yourself.
“You’re allowed to do it in the UK for the British Championships. If you’re a resident there, and you qualify, then you can enter into the race.”
Aside from the many excellent sporting facilities available in the UAE, one thing lacking is a Centre of Excellence for Athletics, where budding runners can train all year round.
There are many examples across the world, like Monte Gordo in Portugal, Loughborough in England, Athlone in Ireland and, closer to the UAE, Aspire Academy in Qatar.
Campbell believes that having a facility of this scale would be a serious step forward for athletics in the UAE.
“It would be ideal having a Centre for Excellence, especially when you have something similar in Qatar with the Aspire Academy. I think it will be the way forward if they want to boost athletics for the next Olympics,” said Campbell.
“We’ve got off road stuff, a lot of trail running, the desert running, you’ve got all the different surfaces in the UAE but we don’t have an indoor track. We could use it 355 days a year, instead of some people having to leave during the summer to train elsewhere. It would be a major step forward for athletics in the region.”
With numbers growing every season, Ultimate Athletics require hundreds of hours of track rental, athletics equipment, facilities, coaches and physios to keep it all going.
New Balance have come on board to help Ultimate Athletics on a product sponsorship basis, providing coaches with kit and prizes for the winners of the various race nights. It has been helpful but, overall, general sponsorship has proved tough in recent years.
“It’s been difficult. In terms of finances, we don’t have any help in this area. It is difficult with athletic equipment, facilities and coaches. A lot of the equipment needs maintaining as well,” Campbell said.
“You’ve got your physios, water also, it all adds up. We would be looking for more support from the community in order to grow but, of course, it takes time.
“It would be great if we could get sponsorship to make the competition more professional and athletes can use their times to help get scholarships. That will be next step to get sponsorship for electronic timing.”
The future certainly looks rosy for Ultimate Athletics, with many talented athletes, a strong relationship with the UAE Athletics Federation and positive changes happening for the good of athletics in the Emirates.