DUBAI: The wait is almost over.
For 33 Saudi athletes, and thousands of others from around the world, what is usually a tough, long four-year road to the Olympics Games turned into a five-year journey for Tokyo 2020. And it’s finally at an end.
For some, the year’s delay disrupted a carefully planned schedule to peak at just the right moment. For others, it proved an unexpected blessing in reaching a tournament they could not have expected to take part in a year earlier.
All have had to adapt one way or another to the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. But adapt they did, and though the games will be played out to empty stands and arenas, for many of these athletes, Tokyo 2020 will still represent the pinnacle of their careers.
In Japan, Saudi Arabia will have its largest ever Olympic delegation, with 11 individual qualifiers and the U-23 football team taking part in nine sports, surpassing the record of six at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
On Thursday, a day before the official opening of the games, the Saudi Arabian U-23 football team will be the first of the Kingdom’s entries in action, taking on Ivory Coast at Yokohama International Stadium.
Three points on the board would represent a outstanding start for the Young Falcons in their mission to qualify for the knockout stages, as formidable tasks await them against Rio 2016 silver medalists Germany, on Sunday, and reigning Olympic football champions Brazil on Wednesday, July 28.
The official opening day of the tournament, Friday, July 23, will see one of Saudi’s best hopes of success, rower Husein Alireza, grace the newly-built 2,335m Sea Forest Waterway in the Men’s Singles Sculls.
The following day Youssef Bouarish will take the plunge in the Swimming competition’s 100m Butterfly heats, and on the same day Ali Al-Khadrawi, one of Saudi’s earliest qualifiers to Tokyo 2020, will begin his quest for table tennis success.
Weightlifters Siraj Al-Saleem, in the 61kg category, and Mahmoud Al-Ahmeed (73kg), will enter the fray on July 25 and 28 respectively, carrying the nation’s hopes in every sense.
Tahani Al-Qahtani, the last of the Saudis to book her spot at the Olympics, takes part in the Judo competition starting on July 24, while Sulaiman Hammad – in his second Olympics after Rio 2016 – takes to the mat in the men’s Judo 73kg category on July 26. Meanwhile, Saeed Al-Mutairi, at 52, is the oldest Saudi participant in Tokyo and commences action in the Skeet Shooting competition on July 25.
Yasmine Al-Dabbagh will take part in the 100m heats on the first day of the Athletics competitions, Friday, July 30, and two days later Mazen Al-Yassin will face some of the world’s best short distance runners in the 400m heats, including South African Wade van Niekerk and Grenadian Kirani James, respective gold medalists at the last two Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and London.
Finally, on August 6, Tarek Hamdi, the most decorated athlete in the Saudi delegation with seven gold medals at various competitions, will begin his quest for medals in the Karate 75kg category.
Several of the other Saudi athletes will be hoping that even by then, two days before Tokyo 2020’s closing ceremony, their dreams of Olympic glory have not yet been extinguished.
Whatever happens in the next 18 days, it will be a journey that they will never forget.
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