Eoin Flynn –
Close your eyes for a moment. Let’s dream. We are at the start line of one of the world’s biggest and most adventurous trail running races. Above us is the clear, dark, star-filled sky with the Al Hajar Mountains in all their green splendor beyond, somewhat muted by the last light of Dakhiliyah’s dusk.
To the right of us are some of Europe’s and the World’s most experienced and finest ultra-distance runners from countries such as Germany, Spain, Ireland and France. To the left of us are a slew of young Omani runners, entering a 170-km race for the first time, full of enthusiasm, hope and endeavour, full of excitement and ambition.
Ahead, the roads of Birkat Al Mouz are lined with local families, international visitors from afar, and thousands of spectators, curious, apprehensive, some even stuck in that twilight zone somewhere between nervous and excited for their friends and loved ones, who, at the sound of the gun, will charge off into the Omani night most unaware of the nature of the challenge ahead.
Everyone, it seems, is enjoying the atmosphere and cheering on their family and friends. This is the party of all parties as the DJ’s beat becomes louder and more insistent. Subtly though the mood changes, and the tension is ramped up, as a countdown…10…9…8…emerges from the driving beat…7…6…5…and now everyone looks expectantly down the racecourse, where a dishdasha clad Government Minister stands, his rifle raised…4…3…2…1…and there is a puff of smoke before the sound of a gunshot reaches us, and as the start is made, there is a massive roar…and…they’re off!
The event I am describing is the Oman by UTMB race, colloquially referred to as The Beast,’ as competitors run, walk, climb, stumble and suffer their way up the side of the Green Mountain, Jabal Akhdhar, in the darkness. They then traverse across the Hajar Range to Jabal Shams, before an arduous descent fraught with danger, before dropping down to the finish in Al Hamra.
I must admit that, as a young sports mad boy growing up in the quiet suburbs of Dublin in Ireland, watching the Manchester United football team every weekend while following my dad to road races all over the country, we dreamed of going to the London or New York marathons, but Oman was just a place on the map, a country that rarely ever entered my consciousness.
Yet, fast forward, and here I am, in 2020, travelling to Oman regularly, with Omani friends, and in perpetual awe and admiration at how quickly world class international sporting events have become athletic calendar events, with huge numbers of participants, and getting bigger every year.
As I have learned more about Oman during these the last few years, everyone I have spoken to, has left me under no illusion as to who has made this all happen, but how the vision of one man made such events not only possible, but outrageously successful.
Just one man, who had the vision to bring education to the illiterate, and higher education opportunities to all. Just one man who personally drove infrastructural development, with some of the best roads, ports, bridges, communications networks, energy transmission, and desalination plants, in the world. One man who saw one hospital and ten doctors replaced by immediate medical care for all. Just one man has housed 86 per cent of his citizens in their own homes. Just one man has driven manufacturing, marketing, science, technology and innovation to create jobs for his people.
It was just that one man who has opened his country to the world, by inviting the world to his country, confidently saying, “Come, meet us, join us, we are very different, but we will make you as welcome as any man welcomes his brother or sister. Our homes are yours.” Just one man indeed, who then turned his attention to ‘sports tourism,’ as a key factor in stimulating the tourism and hospitality sector, with Extreme Yacht Racing, the Cycle Tour of Oman, Oman by UTMB, and the Al Mouj Muscat Marathon.
Just one man maybe, and there could only ever be one His Majesty Sultan Qaboos.
Last Saturday, just back from my daily training run and looking forward to the trip to Muscat that was just days away, I switched on my phone to quickly scan my e-mails. There was an e-mail from a Muscat Marathon colleague expressing his great sadness at what had happened. He didn’t mention any details, but it was clear just absolutely devastated and heart-broken he was. Then I saw the sad news.
My mind went back to the very first time I came to Oman two years ago when I shared a two-hour car trip with an Omani friend from Oman Sail who told me about the history of his country and about all the good that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos had done for Oman’s people. We arrived at our event hotel and I vividly remember the beautiful red, white and green floral arrangement in the hotel lobby to celebrate Oman’s National Day.
As I have come to know the country and its people since then, I have discovered a safe, peaceful country with kind, friendly people whose hospitality can never be exaggerated. I have discovered a country with endless possibilities and a country proud of its history, culture, religion and traditions and incredibly proud of, and rightly possessive of their Sultan.
In a modern world, often fraught with chaos, distrust and deceit, often out of control, I have found Oman to be a welcome break from those oppressive elements. Perhaps, hopefully, other world leaders will be wise enough to replicate the body of work that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos has undertaken in Oman. Imagine it, a world that has the same peace and tranquillity as Oman. Imagine his legacy. Imagine his dignity, calm, and grace, a genuine world leader, a true example of giving all of himself, for his people.
Close your eyes for a moment. Let’s dream.
But this time, we have instead of hundreds of athletes around us, we have 12,000 fervent, bubbling, almost childishly excited athletes. We have 12,000 Omani men, women and children along with friends they just haven’t met yet, and visitors from all over the world. We have a former world champion and world record holder and we have some of the fastest elite runners in the world.
Yet, most importantly, there is just one man on all of our minds…10…9…8…just one man we want to win for…7…6…5…just one man making our mouth dry, our eyes suddenly mist over, the hairs on the back of our neck rustle and rise…4…we look down the racetrack…3…we see a man in a white dishdasha…2… No, it’s not possible is it?…1… No, it’s not, but what a dream…the gun sounds, and we’re off!
The UTMB in November will be one of the sporting events without His Majesty Sultan Qaboos at the country’s helm, but you can absolutely guarantee he will be on the minds, and in the hearts of every single competitor for every step of the 42km from start to finish.
As he has always done, he will guide us impeccably, with certainty, with vision, and with that impeccable elegance we, yes me too, have all come to know and appreciate.
We may open our eyes and still dream, as the dream remains, and I’ll see you on the start line in February.
Eoin Flynn is a world class middle-distance athlete from Ireland, also a teacher and confectioner, he is currently resident in Gran Canaria. He travels to Oman regularly to commentate on sporting events.