ALI KHAMIS, the sixth fastest man over 400m at the Rio Olympics, talks of his past, present and future in an exlusive interview with VIJAY MRUTHYUNJAYA.
To meet a man who is the sixth fastest in the world over 400m at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games was indeed a marathon task given his reluctance to speak to the media and arranging a date and time amid his hectic schedule.
Now that I have cornered him, let me introduce you all to our very own Bahrain Boy Ali Khamis Abbas Ali Khamis who made history by becoming the first Bahraini-born to enter the final of a track event at the Olympics.
And as if to make the occasion even more memorable, the 21-year-old finished sixth with a new Bahrain national mark of 44.36 seconds in a race which witnessed a world record, two season’s best, a personal best and two national records.
Ali returned home unsung and almost unnoticed as Ruth Jebet, the 3,000m steeplechase gold medalist, hogged all the limelight becoming the first-ever Bahraini gold medalist.
But Ali’s spirits were high when I met him at the National Stadium on a hot and humid evening last week.
The spring in his stride was hard to overlook and the genteel smile on his face infectious as he walked into the Bahrain Athletics Association office at the foot of the National Stadium in Riffa – a remarkably striking image comparable to my childhood hero, the double Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thomson, or the Hollywood action star Burt Reynolds …. the closely cropped hair, the neatly trimmed mustache, the bulging biceps, the gait and most importantly the self confidence in every stride he took ….
Before my imagination could wander further afar, we were ushered into a room for a long-awaited interview with a budding athlete who has so far lived up to his prospectus and promises to achieve much more.
As we sit down, piping hot Arabic tea is served in tiny glass cups. The room is spacious but intimidating to an outsider as all the top athletic stars you can think of stare at you from glossy posters stuck end to end on the walls.
I ask the first obvious question. Why athletics? Why not football, basketball, handball…
“Running came naturally to me. I enjoy it,” said Ali instantaneously but in halting English. “I did not like football or any other game. Running did not need any external element, it was you against the clock, I liked it,” he added with help from Bader Nasser Mohammed, the head of competitions, referees and media at Bahrain Athletic Association, who served as an unofficial translator.
Bader is Ali’s friend, guide and philosopher from the time they came together about four years ago. Since then, Ali has blossomed into a champion athlete and his performance at the Rio Olympics, as Bader said, is just the beginning of another glorious phase.
Ali is a product of the Bahrain Talent Search Programme. He was the only one selected when he was in high school at Imam Gazali Intermediate Boys School in Madinat Hamad.
“I was good at basically everything. Hurdling, sprinting, jumping,” recalled Ali, the youngest of five boys of a conservative Bahraini family. His father Khamis Abbas Ali Khamis, a Ministry of Education employee, was a good football and handball player during his younger days and his eldest brother also an athlete.
Ali dabbled in all disciplines – from sprinting to middle distance and hurdles. As a 400m hurdler he achieved great success at the junior level, winning almost all events at the regional level.
“I wanted to specialise in one event but it was difficult to decide. I was confused,” said Ali, who took up athletics full time after high school with support and encouragement from Bahrain Athletics Association.
He made his international debut at the 2011 World Youth Championships in Athens where he set a personal best of 54.27 seconds in 400m hurdles.
Ali also took part in the 2012 Asian Junior Athletics Championships where he faltered in the final of the 400m hurdles and finished last, a bitter memory which still haunts him.
But he persevered. Ali soon switched from hurdles to 400m flat and that decision changed the complexion of his career. He achieved instant success setting two national junior records at the 2013 Arab Athletics Championships. He clocked 46.90 seconds in the qualifiers and 46.25 in the final to take the bronze medal, the first of his many podium performances.
Ali was back on the podium the same year at the Asian Athletics Championships finishing second with a significant new best of 45.65 seconds.
Ali began the 2014 season with a 400m sprint-hurdles double at the Arab Junior Athletics Championships in Cairo and also made his debut in the IAAF Diamond League in Doha where he finished second.
The hurdles remained his preferred discipline at the 2014 World Junior Championships where he set a string of bests, improving from 51.10 to 49.55 in the final, a time which earned him a silver medal behind Jamaica’s Jaheel Hyde.
Ali went on to win the silver medal at World Junior Championships in Eugene, US, and peaked with a gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games and Arab Championships in front of his home crowd.
A remarkable run of success as a junior athlete.
“It was a wonderful journey,” recalled Ali. “There were ups and downs, moments of joy and sorrow, but I enjoyed every moment. The learning process was great.”
And then he made his senior debut and began to concentrate on 400m flat with the focus on Rio Olympics.
“I started my preparations in January. I spent four months in Bulgaria training with my Bulgarian coach, took part in some races as build up to Rio,” said Ali.
To maintain the momentum, Ali did not return home but instead headed straight to Rio De Janeiro.
“I did not feel like taking a break. My focus was on Rio and I did not want that to change,” he added.
The next obvious question – what was his immediate goal?
“To get into the final,” was his equally immediate reply.
And he achieved that in style, winning the first heat in 45.12 seconds.
“I felt good before the heat. I was comfortable at the Olympic Village and meeting and mingling with so many great athletes boosts your confidence,” said Ali.
Then in the semi-finals he did even better. Though he finished third with a much improved time of 44.49, it was enough to book a place in the final.
“With that (entering the final) I thought I had achieved 80pc of what I had planned,” said Ali. “But the job was not over yet.”
The final was a memorable one. The South African Wayde Van Niekerk won the event with a new world record of 43.03 and Granada’s Kirani James claimed the silver in 43.76 and US’ LaShwan Merritt the bronze in 43.85, both season best times.
Machel Cadenio set a national record (44.01) for Trinidad and Tobago in finishing fourth and Karabo Sibanda of Botswana was fifth with a personal best of 44.25.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, it was Ali Khamis of Bahrain in sixth with a national record of 44.36 seconds.
“It was unbelievable. I was part of a world record-setting race, amid some incredible athletes,” recalled Ali.
Another surprise awaited Ali soon after the final as Nike offered him a four-year endorsement contract with performance related bonuses.
Was it his most memorable moment?
“No,” was his astonishingly surprising reply.
“My most memorable moment was when my father surprised me at the Asian Championships in Pune, India. He brought along my mother on the day of the heats. I had no clue and as I entered the track I saw her and could not believe my eyes. It was the first time my mother had come to watch me run. It was unbelievable,” Ali recollected. He went on to claim silver medal with president of Bahrain Athletics Association Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa watching from the stands.
What about the Olympic moment?
“It was special in its own way. Merritt (LaShwawn) congratulated me after the semi-final and said some encouraging words. It was very nice of him. And then His Highness Shaikh Khalid telephoned me immediately after the semi-final to congratulate me on reaching the final. It was touching,” recalled Ali.
Now back in Bahrain after more than seven months on the road, Ali is spending some quality time with his family, particularly his father, who he says is his biggest and most ardent fan.
“My father is my source of inspiration. He encouraged me right from the beginning and my eldest brother also guided me when I was young. If not for the support and understanding of my family, I would not be here today,” said Ali.
“I have no patience or time for reading. Movies, once in a while in the gym. But music, yes. I like to listen to Bahraini singer Ali Bahar. It is so soothing to listen to his music while cooling down after a training session,” he said.
“Arab Championships, next year’s World Championships in London and the ultimate goal is the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”
By then Ali will be 25, possibly in prime shape and at the peak of his career with a podium spot in sight.
Interesting times are ahead for Ali and Bahrain.