This April, Mokhtar Al-Yamani fulfilled the qualifying B standard to the 200 meter freestyle swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympics. He received his Olympic credentials and was all set for the big games in August, until the official list of swimmers qualified for Rio was released in mid-July without Al-Yamani’s name.
His well-deserved spot at Rio 2016 was reallocated due to an alleged miscommunication between the International Olympic Committee and Yemen’s National Olympic Committee. Al-Yamani explained to Stepfeed how his Olympic dream was put on a four-year hold.
“As disappointing the final outcome is, I know that this was a decision called forth by the rules outlined by FINA and the IOC,” he said.
There are two qualifying standards for swimming at the Olympics. Swimmers who fulfill the Olympic Qualifying Time (A Standard) and are selected by their countries are automatically invited to the meet. As for countries that do not produce A qualifiers, there is a Universality Rule that states that a country can send a male and female swimmer – regardless of their time – if they had competed in the 2015 World Championship in Kazan, Russia.
Al-Yamani did not compete at the World Championship, so he was not eligible for the Universality ticket and had to resort to a third qualifying route via the Olympic Selection Time (B Standard).
The IOC had supposedly assured the YOC that Al-Yamani would qualify to Rio if he achieved the B Standard. Having fulfilled his end of the deal, the IOC handed Al-Yamani his Olympic ID in June. This move was quite problematic since, according to the international swimming federation FINA’s qualification system, remaining Olympic spots would be distributed to B qualified swimmers based on the World Ranking of July 3, 2016, after the allocation of the A qualifiers and the Universality berths.
Al-Yamani was even offered to be Yemen’s flag-bearer at the Rio Olympics. Yet, MGo Blue reports that he had decided against it, believing he does not qualify for that honor. The University of Michigan student was born to a Yemeni father and a Japanese mother, grew up in Tokyo and has only visited Yemen once as a child.
Two weeks before the 2016 Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, Al-Yamani received the unfortunate news. “Last week, the IOC informed the YOC that I am no longer eligible to compete at Rio because I didn't meet the requirements of the Universality Rule – swimming at Kazan (World Championship).”
He pointed out that the IOC and FINA mishandled the entries to Rio’s swimming event. “It is extremely frustrating because there are many inconsistencies with the invitation process this year,” noted Al-Yamani.
Swim Swam has identified three swimmers who received Universality Tickets without participating in the 2015 World Championship. They have thus taken Olympic spots that would have otherwise been handed out to swimmers with B timings – such as Al-Yamani.
The ambiguity particularly got under Al-Yamani’s skin: “Most of all, I would like clarity on the situation. The lack of transparency regarding how I was deemed eligible in the first place, and why certain other swimmers under the same circumstances as me are eligible and others are not, frustrates me.”
Amid the frustration, Al-Yamani remains positive and grateful. He hasn't lost hope and is already eyeing the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “With the decision having been finalized, there is no other option but to move on from this and accept that I was simply not fast enough this year. Training with some of the best swimmers I know through this summer has taught me an otherwise unattainable element of discipline, and I will use this as a catalyst to move forward and get better.”
Despite having Japanese and American passports, Al-Yamani is motivated to successfully represent Yemen in international competitions. He hopes his achievements shed light on swimming in Yemen, expand it as a sport and encourage the development of swimming facilities.
While Al-Yamani will not represent his father’s homeland at Rio 2016, Yemen will still be represented in the Olympic swimming events by Nooran Bamatraf, who received a Universality invitation, having competed in the 2015 World Championship. Bamatraf was invited to the women’s 100-meter butterfly event, whose B standard is 1:00.8 minutes compared to her 1:14.43 finish. She will become Yemen’s first female Olympic swimmer.
Ebrahim Al-Maleki was also entered in the men’s 500-meter freestyle race with a timing 4.5 seconds slower than the 23.05 second B standard. Unfortunately, Al-Yamani said that Maleki withdrew from the games after his swimming facility was bombed, leaving him unable to train.
FINA’s universality system currently stands in question, not only concerning FINA’s inconsistent application of its own rules, but also when it comes to the logic behind it.
While the system serves the inclusion of a maximum number of countries in the international games, it undermines swimmers’ achievements by prioritizing invitations over fulfilling the OST. While swimmers who have achieved the B standard fight for a limited number of Olympic berths, those with slower timings get invited to the Olympics.
“Truthfully, I believe that the fastest man and woman should be selected if there are no A qualifiers, without limiting their selection to those who competed at previous meets with slower times,” said Al-Yamani.
Yemen has only sent an Olympic swimmer to each of Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, but none of the nation’s athletes have reached the Olympic podium.