Sitting on the side of the track of newly renovated Khalifa international stadium, Qatar, Owaab Barrow ties his white running shoes for his last training session before his very first Diamond League.
While the heat in the Qatari capital is creeping up towards 40 degrees, it’s a comfortable 26 degrees on the track, located inside a stadium equipped with a new cooling system.
Born to a British father and Sudanese mother, the 17-year-old Qatari citizen is a product of Aspire Academy, the training centre which grabbed global headlines after Qatar won the Asian Cup football tournament earlier this year.
Most of the Qatari national football team players were once Aspire trainees.
And in a country focused on hosting the 2022 World Cup, the Aspire Academy has not forgotten the track.
– ‘Tricked’ into track –
Barrow, the 2018 Junior Olympic 110 metre hurdles champion, is scheduled to run the 200 metres against some of the world’s best athletes, including Ramil Guliyev and Aaron Brown.
Olympic champion Caster Semenya, who lost her legal challenge against new IAAF gender rules, will also race in the 800 metres Friday at the Diamond League.
Barrow moved to Doha from London with his family in 2007, when he was just 6 years old.
Back then, he dreamt of playing football. But with long waiting lists at top training schools, he said he was “tricked” into athletics at Aspire, his eyes sparkling as he grinned.
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“They were supposed to switch me to the football program later on,” Barrow told AFP.
But that day never came, and Owaab grew to love running on the tracks.
And even though Barrow admits running under the heat in Doha can be challenging, he is used to it. Plus “it’s very good for the muscles!” he says, jumping from one leg to the other as he warms up.
– ‘Not just football’ –
Lee Christopher, who coaches sprinters and hurdlers at Aspire, says the Diamond League and the World Athletics Championship in September will give momentum to athletics beyond football.
“Not everything is about football in Qatar,” said Christopher, adding that he hoped the public would turn up in great numbers at both events.
Qatar has faced criticism in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, ushering in a number of reforms for labour rights as it builds stadiums to accommodate teams — and fans — from around the world.
And while the gas-rich emirate has also been accused of “buying athletes” to compete under the Qatari flag, experts say things have begun to change over the past decade.
“Now we are seeing the golden age of athletics in Qatar with the country producing champions like Mutaz Ezza Barshim…,” said Tom Crick, head coach for track and field at Aspire Academy.
Barshim, a world-class high jumper, 2012 Olympic bronze medallist and current World Champion, also received some training at Aspire.
Young Barrow, for his part, hopes to make his “real” debut in the big league at the September World Athletics Championship, hosted by Qatar — a country he does not hesitate to call “home”.
“I’m actually very excited as this is my first time competing for the Doha Diamond League,” said Barrow.
“I live here, and it’s going to be a very nice experience. And it will also set me up for the World Championship in September.”