Bahrain Athletics has enjoyed major success recently, but how did the tiny Gulf nation beat mighty China at the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships?

At the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships in Doha, Bahrain finished top of the medal table. Ahead of China. Bahrain’s population is around 1.1 million, China’s is 1.4 billion. The achievement was remarkable and for the Bahrain Athletics Association represented the pinnacle of a programme first launched in 2005.

Blending identification of young overseas talent with dedicated grassroots initiatives, the Bahrain Athletics Association has created pathways it hopes will bring further Olympic success to the Kingdom.

Maryam Yusuf Jamal is in the history books as Bahrain’s first Olympic gold medalist – the 1500m runner initially won bronze at London 2012 but was elevated to first place when her competitors were retrospectively disqualified in 2017 for doping offences.

It means that the first time Bahrain actually celebrated winning an Olympic gold medal was when Ruth Jebet triumphed in the 3000m steeplechase at the Rio 2016 Games. Eunice Kirwa also claimed silver in the marathon in Brazil.

Jebet and Kirwa were both born in Kenya, while Jamal was born in Ethiopia. A number of Bahrain’s most successful athletes have been naturalised after moving to the Kingdom but Bahrain Olympic Committee and Bahrain Athletics Association board member Bader Nasser Mohammed insists they feel just as Bahraini as the country’s Arab athletes.

“Our athletes who have changed their nationalities all came to Bahrain unknown, and most of them very young,” Mohammed tells Sport Industry Insider. “Their home countries didn’t discover them but we recognised their talent so we worked with them, we trained them and helped them develop.

“Now they live in Bahrain, their families live in Bahrain. Bahrain is their home and they feel Bahraini – if they didn’t, they would leave. In the Bahrain Athletics Association, we have never separated naturalised athletes from Bahrain-born athletes – they are all Bahraini to us.”

It is not just talented youngsters born overseas who have emerged through the Bahrain Athletics Association programmes. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Ali Khamis finished sixth in the 400m, securing a national record in the final and a personal best in the semi-final. His journey is one that Mohammed hopes will inspire aspiring Bahraini athletes. 

“We have supported Ali since first scouting him when he was in grade six,” Mohammed recalls. “I was with him when he took silver at the 2014 World Junior Athletics Championships – he had only just turned 18. This is a great story and a direct outcome of our athletics programme. Of course we hope he will encourage people not just in Bahrain but the whole GCC.

“It is difficult because everyone in the region loves football. The culture towards athletics is not the same here as it is in the United States and Europe – athletics is not so popular. Now we hope the mentality of the people is changing. The Olympic Games helps bring in a wider audience and we hope Tokyo 2020 will do that too.”

Bahrain Athletics Ali Khamis

Underlining the importance of role models, the Bahrain Athletics Association places a major emphasis on school engagement. Bahrain’s star athletes, including recently crowned world 400m champion Salwa Eid Naser, are encouraged to regularly conduct school visits.

“Taking the athletes to meet the students helps motivate them and encourage them to take up athletics. They see it is possible to make a life from athletics and to represent the country in front of the world. Salwa was 13 when we started training her and now we see a lot of young athletes are trying to reach her level. Our young athletes can meet her, train with her, and hopefully compete with her.

“We have a challenging athletics programme in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. We go to schools. We find talented boys and girls from nine years to 13, send them to training camps in the summer and work with them closely. The programme is getting better every year. The level of the people – the athletes, the coaches, the administrators – is improving all the time.”

The ultimate ambition is to breed more Olympic medalists and Mohammed believes that there is plenty to be excited about with the current crop of young Bahraini athletes.

“I think in 2024 and 2028 we have big hopes for some of these athletes. They need some time to gain big competition experience before they will be ready for the Olympics. You need to be mentally and physically prepared to step up to that level as there are so many people fighting hard for that moment in the spotlight.”

“We wanted to aim high and break through the Great Wall of China. In 2019 it happened after many years of hard work.”

Bahrain’s incredible performance at the 2019 Asian Athletics Championship last April was followed by an equally commendable 12th-place finish at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, which included gold for Salwa Eid Naser in the 400m, silver for Rose Chelimo in the marathon and bronze in the 4x400m mixed relay.

The momentum certainly appears to be building for Bahraini athletics and Mohammed believes defeating China at the continental championships was the watershed moment.

“We’ve been having a big competition with China for several years and it had been the target of His Highness Sheikh Khalid, the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, and Mohammed Jalal, the president of the Bahrain Athletics Association, to aim high and break through the Great Wall of China.

“In 2019 it happened after many years of hard work and dreaming big.”

The next litmus test for the Bahrain Athletics Association comes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The outlook is optimistic, with officials aiming for a record-breaking haul in Japan.

“With the support of the King, everyone now appreciates the reputation of athletics in Bahrain more. The Olympics is the most important event and athletics is the highest-profile part of the games so it means a lot when the Bahraini flag is raised there.

“If you ask anyone that’s in the federation, the aim is simply to get more medals at Tokyo 2020 than in 2016. The target is to beat that one gold and one silver. Of course, nothing in sport is guaranteed – the athletes work hard so they reach that elite level and then all they can do is their best. But yes, we are hopeful about our chances in Tokyo.”