The year 2019 will unmistakably go down in history as a groundbreaking year for Maldivian sportsmanship.
When a bright-eyed delegation of 23 young athletes departed to Mauritius to participate in the Indian Ocean Island Games (IOIG), few back home in Maldives expected, or rather, dared to hope for the shining podium finishes that were achieved.
In total, the contingent bagged four gold and silver medals, as well as seven bronze finishes, across multiple sporting disciplines.
The nation’s response was not mild - to say the least! Several across the island nation ecstatically celebrated the successes which propelled the spotlight away from historically popular sports, namely football, in favour of those in desperate need of more recognition.
However, this was not all. A few oceans away at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, six new national records were set by another group of dedicated athletes.
As a crowning achievement, Maldives was chosen to host the 11th instalment of the IOIG in 2023, which is set to be one of the most prominent international multi-sports events held in the country.
“It was a complete change of scene, a paradigm shift,'' exclaimed Secretary-General of the Maldives Olympic Committee (MOC) Ahmed Marzooq, while describing the impact of the year’s successes.
All four gold medals earned at the games fall under disciplines which were classified as ‘minor’ in the sports audit conducted by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment earlier in 2019. As such, it was a victory of sorts for the entire sporting industry within which the state has, until recently, remained heavily focused on football in terms of media coverage and infrastructure investments.
The game-changing achievements of the IOIG delegation and Maldivian representatives at FINA were earned in spite of severe obstacles, such as lack of adequate practice space, inspiring many. And so, it was with much fanfare that the government welcomed the medal winners and their teammates back to Maldives.
On social media platforms, emotive photographs of the athletes’ iconic victories were shared, prompting an outpouring of national pride.
The IOIG delegation’s attainment of the 15 medal target set by MOC compares starkly with the two medals Maldives earned at the inaugural edition of the IOIG in 1979 or the nine secured in 2015.
MOC Secretary General Marzooq explained that the collective achievements of 2019 had set a new standard for excellence that would serve to encourage other athletes to aim high in the near future.
Another noteworthy aspect of the sporting achievements of 2019 is the rise of remarkable female athletes. The women’s table tennis team, consisting of Aishath Rafa Nazim, Fathimath Dheema Ali, Mueena Mohamed and Jumana Nimal, single-handedly raked in more than a quarter of Maldives’ medal count.
In a win that also counts as Maldives first badminton gold medal at an international event, Nabeeha Abdul Razzaq triumphed on court at the women’s singles.
At FINA, two talented female swimmers Aishath Sajina and Aishath Sausan, broke and reset their own records in the 200-metre breaststroke and 50-metre backstroke respectively.
Highlighting that MOC had exceeded its target to increase women's participation in sports to 33 percent with current figures reaching 41 percent, Marzooq stated that his view of individuals in the sports field was not limited by gender.
“We see them as athletes,'' said Marzooq, simply and effectively summing up the approach chosen by MOC, which also upped the proportion of female sports officials to 50 percent.
Perhaps less in the spotlight, but no less worthy of praise, is Mohamed Maazin’s bronze medal in the 100 meter Paralympic category.
Earlier in the year, Maldives' National Paralympic Committee (NPC) gained provisional membership in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). The question of whether Maldives can secure full membership along with its benefits will only be answered in October at the IPC General Assembly. Needless to say, this would bode well for the differently-abled with athletic aspirations.
The recognition denoted by Maldives’ successful bid to host the 2023 IOIG is in itself is a great achievement - especially considering that Minister of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment Ahmed Mahloof and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid toured the Indian Ocean as a Special Envoy of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, seeking support for the cause.
It was with sincere delight and optimism that people across the nation welcomed the prospect of welcoming IOIG delegations in four years.
“We are not complacent” stated General Secretary of the Table Tennis Association of Maldives (TTAM) Ismail Shujau.
Despite having exceeded expectations at Mauritius, Shujau revealed that TTAM intended to maintain their impressive record during the next edition of the games.
Marzooq also stressed the need for today’s athletic stars to strive and keep the year’s momentum going.
While Maldivian athletes have no shortage of drive or motivation, the journey to further success will not be without difficulties.
For instance, the lack of infrastructure is a common and serious impediment to the advancement of several sports in Maldives. There is a notable trend of more plentiful facilities for sports such as football and futsal, to the detriment of other sporting disciplines.
As revealed by the Sports Ministry’s audit conducted in 2019, there are currently 143 football grounds across the nation compared to a mere 25 in badminton courts. Overall, several sports facilities across the country are in dire need of repair or upgrades.
Of particular concern is the lack of adequate training facilities for swimmers and table tennis players.
At present, swimmers are left with little choice but to practice and compete in a blocked off part of the capital city Male's south-side lagoon. The area, locally known as 'the track’, often becomes heavily polluted due to oil spills, sewage dumping and littered waste. Additionally, the density difference in seawater versus the pools in which these athletes compete, especially combined with currents and other natural factors is said to have an impact in gauging their performances.
Similarly, table tennis players are limited to training in a section of the social centre in Male’ which is reported by many participants to be both lacking in size and generally ill-equipped for the purpose.
The infrastructure issue threatens generations of athletes from exploring their true potential.
That said, however, the future is not completely bleak.
Once the current administration’s plans to establish an Olympic swimming pool in Male and sports arenas of international standard across the country come to fruition, the situation will change for the better.
The planned infrastructure developments complemented by greater state and public support have the potential to take the sports industry, with its capacity to inspire patriotic unity, to even greater heights.
Clearly, hope is on the horizon for rising Maldivian talent.