A Scottish former middle and long distance running champion is setting up a new, competitive athletics system for school children in Qatar to boost their fitness and encourage them to get into sports.
Liz McColgan-Nuttall, who moved to Doha with her husband last year, is a sporting household name in the UK.
A silver medalist for the 10,000 meters at the 1988 Olympics, she won gold for the same distance in the 1991 World Championships. That same year, she won the New York marathon, followed by the Tokyo marathon in 1992 and then the London marathon four years later.
Since landing in Qatar, she said she has already found several promising young athletes who she is training as part of her new Doha Athletic Club network.
But McColgan-Nuttall added that the focus of the club is not just to scout for outstanding talent, but also to find the right way to persuade more children in Qatar to get active, regardless of their ability.
Upon her arrival, the athlete initially visited seven independent and international schools around Qatar, speaking to pupils about what motivates them. Speaking to Doha News, she said she was impressed with the feedback:
“I am passionate about my sport, so it was great to see so much enthusiasm for running, particularly among girls. When I tested them, it was amazing the number who could really run and enjoyed it.
However, I also saw how uncoordinated and unfit some kids were. I thought there was a real opportunity to create a system allowing children to get fit and healthy, and also to get better at sports. So I decided to do something about it.”
After advertising in schools and contacting the pupils she had seen who were talented and also interested in running, McColgan-Nuttall started her first training sessions in September last year with just a handful of young athletes.
She now has more than 30 children signed up for regular training and has plans to grow the program.
Open to girls and boys, the mini-athletics sessions for six to nine-year-olds meet twice-weekly, while the main athletics training is aimed at children aged nine years and older.
They train at least three times a week on the track, as well as having a gym session using Doha College Al Waab’s facilities. Some also have an extra running session on Thursday afternoons in Aspire Park.
As a new group in Qatar, it has struggled to find a ground where the children can train, after being rejected by several sports facilities in Doha.
McColgan-Nuttall said she is currently in talks to secure regular slots at Al Sadd Sports Club, which she hopes will be fruitful and provide a settled base from which the group can expand.
The athletics club is open to any interested children, who are willing to make the commitment to the training schedule.
“Anyone can join. It’s not necessary to have a particular skill or talent, just commitment. The desire to do it is the most important thing.
I try to see quickly what kids have a natural aptitude for and how their bodies are built, so they try running, jumping, sprinting. Then we tailor their training to their own particular needs,” she said.
While the sessions include both boys and girls, they have particularly attracted females as there is nothing similar for them in Qatar, McColgan-Nuttall added.
“It’s all about preparing kids for sport. You see in Doha more than anywhere else the lack of opportunity, particularly for girls. Many of the kids here are way behind others of the same age back in the UK in terms of the way they move, their coordination and strength,” she said.
The aspiration of the former Olympic medalist is to set up five clubs around Qatar, including branches in Al Khor and Dukhan, so that children and their parents don’t need to travel so far to train several times a week.
Building on this, McColgan-Nuttall said she wants to establish a competitive network, to help spur on the young athletes to improve themselves.
“I want to create in Qatar a really good club system with competition, made up of Qatari and international children. It would be great to also have an international team running in events in Oman or the US high school championships, or in their home countries.”
“I have seen some Qatari girls in particular and, just from their body shape, I know they could be great runners. There is a challenge of lifestyle here, which needs to change, but if we can attract a few to come with friends, that would be a start.
We train in a very respectful way and already have some Qatari children running with us. Every child should be given the opportunity to be active and healthy. It doesn’t matter what their culture is.”
McColgan-Nuttall is also talking to schools about introducing an “ABC Athletics” program within the PE curriculum, which would teach elementary athletics skills, focused on strengthening a child all-round, as well as nutrition.
So far, Park House English School has signed up to the scheme and will roll it out from September this year, she said, while several other schools are also considering adopting it.
Mini athletics is proving popular in doha every school kid should be taught athletic skills before choosing a sport I'm on a mission 🙂
— liz mccolgan (@Lizmccolgan) March 15, 2015
The former pro athlete said she is currently working with several “outstanding talents” in the club, as well as lots of other children who are developing their skills and have progressed significantly since they started training with her, including some girls with real distance-running potential.
One of her most promising students is Faith Chen, an 11 year-old student at Sherborne Qatar.
A keen runner in the UK who trained regularly with her local club, Faith struggled to find similar support when she moved with her family from Surrey to Qatar last summer, her mother Fatima told Doha News.
She joined sports groups through school, taking part in tag rugby, netball and swimming and her talent was spotted by her PE teacher, who contacted McColgan-Nuttall and suggested they meet.
Since they started training together at the end of last year, the young athlete has improved markedly, her coach said.
“Now, she is quicker than she was in the UK. Faith has a real ability which not many people have. And she has strength, speed and is very, very competitive. She absolutely loves it,” McColgan-Nuttall said.
As Qatar gears up to host the World Championships in Athletics in 2019, which is one of the globe’s largest sporting events, McColgan-Nuttall is hopeful that it might spur more young people to get active.
For more information on the club, email firstname.lastname@example.org.