Qualification for ACC Premier Cup ‘just the beginning’ for cricket in Kingdom, victorious Saudi Arabia says

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Updated 09 February 2024

Qualification for ACC Premier Cup ‘just the beginning’ for cricket in Kingdom, victorious Saudi Arabia says

Qualification for ACC Premier Cup ‘just the beginning’ for cricket in Kingdom, victorious Saudi Arabia says
  • Saudi Arabia smashed their way to a 10-wicket victory over Japan in the Asian Cricket Council Men’s Challenger Cup semifinal
  • Semifinal win means Greens will make return to next stage of Asia Cup qualification — the Premier Cup

LONDON/BANGKOK: Saudi Arabia’s back-to-back qualification for the ACC Men’s Premier Cup is “just the beginning” for the development of the sport in the Kingdom, the team’s star batter and head coach both said.

Saudi Arabia smashed their way to a 10-wicket victory over Japan in the Asian Cricket Council Men’s Challenger Cup semifinal on Friday to set up a final against Cambodia on Sunday.

The semifinal win means the Greens will make a return to the next stage of Asia Cup qualification — the Premier Cup to be held in Oman in April. They will be looking to improve on their one win in the tournament last year.

Speaking to Arab News after his team’s win on Friday, captain Hisham Shaikh was in buoyant mood, not just about his team’s chances of retaining the title they won in 2023 but also about advancing beyond the Premier Cup and into next year’s Asia Cup proper, where giants of the game such as India and Pakistan await.

“I think all of our boys have prepared themselves in a way that they can challenge those teams there (in Oman) and perform well at that level,” he told Arab News.

“We all aspire to be a nation that does well and gets within the top 20 teams in the rankings and, I think, last year we gave them a tough time and we want to set another milestone this time around. So, it’s T20 cricket and any of the teams can have their day, so I believe if we have a good round of matches, we can go through,” he added.

Head coach Kabir Khan said his team’s preparations for this year’s cycle of tournaments had shown a marked improvement, which was helping them perform to the best of their ability and the results were being borne out on the pitch.

“A lot of work has been done on the fitness and obviously the discipline, and different coaches have been hired as well now, in batting, bowling and fielding positions,” he said.

“Things are shaping up, we hope that the way we are thinking, and our (Saudi Arabia Cricket Federation) officials are thinking too, we should be qualifying for the World Cups and getting to the next rounds (of tournaments). That is our goal.

“And for that, we need to work a bit harder. I think these tournaments are good for us, it shows our class, but obviously, the main goal is to go higher up and it’s only the beginning, if you look at top (level) cricket, it’s only the beginning,” he said.

Star batter Abdul Waheed echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“I would say all the hard work has paid off right now. We have been (over the past) three months working for this tournament and then, after, for upcoming tournaments,” he said.

“And the boys are doing really well, working to a plan we have done in our training. So, we are just utilizing that and we are playing our natural game.

“To be honest, my main focus is to bring our national team to the next level and we want to qualify for a World Cup. It’s just the beginning, I would say, and my focus is (to aim) higher and higher. Throughout my life, I’ve just wanted to bring our Saudi team to (within) the top 10 teams (in the world),” he said.

Waheed was optimistic about Saudi Arabia’s chances of causing a few upsets and giving a good showing in Oman.

“We are happy to go to Oman and compete with the strongest teams in the ACC T20 (rankings). (Especially with) the way we are playing, the way the boys are playing, they’re doing really well,” he said.

“They’re more focused, they’re playing accordingly — (adapting) to the weather, to the wicket, and to the (opposing) team, so we are excited to play in that ACC tournament.”

Khan said that his team would not be phased by the step-up in opposition in Oman.

“Last year it was 50-over games. And, obviously, teams like Oman and Nepal, they are quite experienced, they’ve played that kind of cricket for a longer time than us. We gave a good fight to Oman, we were very close to winning that game (last year),” he said.

“But even at that tournament, although we won just one game, we did show our class there as well, we showed the quality of cricket we play and the type of upset we can produce as well.

“So, there was something there obviously, and when we went there and we came back, people said: ‘There is a new cricket team coming up and obviously they’re going to give tough times to every team,’” he said.

Tariq Ziad Sagga, the SACF CEO, outlined to Arab News how the federation had stepped up its support for the men’s team in its endeavours to compete at the highest level, but also how it is developing the youth game in Saudi Arabia to maintain progress.

“(Over the past) two years, we’ve increased the number of matches, the international camps and international tours to improve their performance. We hired more international coaches, we increased the playing hours and the training hours daily for most of the players to develop their skills and keep them always in shape and ready for any tournament,” he said.

“We do have regional tournaments, we have a National Cricket Championship in 13 cities, and this year we’e launching the National Associations Championship, with representative from all associations and regions to compete against each other.

“We have a complete grassroots program, divided into two programs — one for the local schools, which introduces cricket to them. And we have another school program for the international schools, for the expats, who know cricket and have played in the schools.

“This, I think, will cover this gap between club cricket and international cricket,” he said.

Pogacar closing in on third Tour de France title after dominant win in the Alps

Pogacar closing in on third Tour de France title after dominant win in the Alps
Updated 20 July 2024

Pogacar closing in on third Tour de France title after dominant win in the Alps

Pogacar closing in on third Tour de France title after dominant win in the Alps
  • The Slovenian looks almost certain to reclaim the Tour crown from Vingegaard, the two-time defending champion from Denmark, and in doing so secure the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France double
  • Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage stays in the southern Alps and features three hard category 1 ascents, the last taking the riders up Col de la Couillole

ISOLA 2000, French Alps:  As the finish line approached, Tadej Pogacar looked over his shoulder and saw an empty road.

Moments later, he was a giant step closer to clinching a third Tour de France title by winning another tough mountain stage on Friday. Pogacar pulled away from Jonas Vingegaard to be 5 minutes, 3 seconds ahead of his main rival with two days left.

“Now I have a good lead,” Pogacar said. “I will do the last two days of the Tour on the roads where I have trained my entire professional career.”

The Slovenian looks almost certain to reclaim the Tour crown from Vingegaard, the two-time defending champion from Denmark, and in doing so secure the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France double.

Behind a fading Vingegaard sits Tour debutant Remco Evenepoel of Belgium, who is 7:01 adrift in third place.

Pogacar attacked with about nine kilometers (six miles) left on the final climb of 16 kilometers (10 miles) to the Isola 2000 ski resort. Vingegaard could not follow as Pogacar chased after the Dane’s Jumbo Visma teammate, Matteo Jorgenson. The American rider was alone in front with Richard Carapaz and Simon Yates just behind him.

Carapaz and Yates were caught by Pogacar, leaving just Jorgenson ahead. He was overtaken with two kilometers left as the UAE Team Emirates leader soared to his fourth stage win this month — holding up four fingers to the fans — and 15th Tour stage victory of his career.

“As I approached the last two kilometers, I felt a little drained. I still caught Richard Carapaz and Simon Yates and I could catch up with Matteo Jorgenson,” Pogacar said. “When it was time to pass him, I pushed as hard as possible to overtake him with speed. He was very strong today, as were all the guys in the breakaway. Hats off to them.”

After four hours in the saddle, Pogacar raised both hands in the air as he crossed the line. Jorgensen was 21 seconds behind and Yates 40 seconds back in third. Carapaz was 1:11 back in fourth spot.

“I knew today’s last climb very well. With the team, we planned it well and we did exactly as we said,” Pogacar said. “Our race was 100 percent perfect.”

Evenepoel placed fifth ahead of a disconsolate Vingegaard, with both riders timed at 1:42 behind Pogacar.

Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage stays in the southern Alps and features three hard category 1 ascents, the last taking the riders up Col de la Couillole.

The Tour ends on Sunday on the French Riviera with a time trail from Monaco to Nice, and not in Paris as it usually does because of the Olympic Games.

Friday’s high-altitude stage may have been Vingegaard’s last chance to take significant time back from Pogacar.

Two of Vingegaard’s Visma teammates — Jorgensen and Dutchman Wilko Kelderman — positioned themselves at the front of a small breakaway and set a strong pace in hot conditions.

The 145-kilometer (90-mile) trek featured two huge climbs known as “hors categorie” (beyond category).

The first came early in the stage, up Col de Vars, and the second just after halfway, to Cime de la Bonette, France’s highest road at an altitude of 2,802 meters.

Despite having two riders at the front, Vingegaard did not attack Pogacar.

After a long descent, there was another hard grind to Isola 2000. Vingegaard could not catch Pogacar and, instead, found himself under pressure from Evenepoel, who just beat him in a sprint to the line.

It was a day to forget for Vingegaard, and another one to savor for Pogacar.

“Reaching the score of 15 Tour stage victories is quite formidable,” he said.

Argentina apologizes to France in football-chant row

Argentina apologizes to France in football-chant row
Updated 20 July 2024

Argentina apologizes to France in football-chant row

Argentina apologizes to France in football-chant row

BUENOS AIRES: Buenos Aires apologized to France after Argentina’s vice president called the European country “colonialist” and its people “hypocrites” in an argument over alleged racist chants by Argentine footballers.
President Javier Milei’s office said Friday it had sent a senior official to the French embassy to explain that Victoria Villarruel’s angry statement on social media was made in her personal capacity.
FIFA has announced an investigation into the chants sung by Argentina players, including Chelsea and Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez, 23, after they won the Copa America.
The chants were heard on a live video posted on social media by Fernandez from the team bus in the wake of the Copa victory over Colombia in Miami on Sunday.
The song targets France’s star striker Kylian Mbappe among others and includes racist and homophobic insults.
Fernandez has apologized, but Chelsea have launched an internal disciplinary procedure against him. The French Football Federation (FFF) has complained to FIFA.
On Wednesday, Villarruel expressed support for Fernandez on X, saying: “No colonialist country is going to intimidate us because of a stadium chant nor for speaking truths that they do not want to admit. Enough with feigned outrage, hypocrites.”
The diplomatic incident came just days before Milei is due to travel to Paris to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
“Diplomatic relations with France are intact,” presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni said Friday.
Argentina’s under secretary for sports, Julio Garro, was dismissed from his post this week after saying captain Lionel Messi and the Argentine Football Association should apologize for the chants.

Shane Lowry keeps calm and carries British Open lead at Troon

Shane Lowry keeps calm and carries British Open lead at Troon
Updated 2 min 55 sec ago

Shane Lowry keeps calm and carries British Open lead at Troon

Shane Lowry keeps calm and carries British Open lead at Troon
  • Lowry had a two-shot lead over Justin Rose and Daniel Brown going into the weekend
  • Tiger Woods missed another cut, along with nine of the top 20 players in the world — including Rory McIlroy, Ludvig Aberg and Bryson DeChambeau

TROON, Scotland: Shane Lowry was a surprising model of calm amid all the calamity in the British Open on Friday.
Lowry was not immune from the endless punishment Royal Troon dished out on a day when Tiger Woods missed another cut, along with nine of the top 20 players in the world — including Rory McIlroy, Ludvig Aberg and Bryson DeChambeau.
He was close to losing his cool with a photographer who distracted him, a shot into the gorse bush, a beautiful provisional shot to the 11th green that didn’t count when his lost ball became found and a double bogey that wiped out his two-shot lead.
Lowry steadied himself with two birdies on the last three holes for a 2-under 69, leaving him in a familiar position as he chases that silver claret jug he first won at Royal Portrush five years ago. He had a two-shot lead over Justin Rose and Daniel Brown going into the weekend.
“I was in control of my ball, did all the right things for a lot of the round. Then when I got in a bit of trouble, I feel like I really finished the round well,” Lowry said. “I’m pretty happy with the day. To be leading this tournament after two days, it’s why you come here. It’s why we’re here.”
The shocker at Royal Troon — there were a lot of them Friday — was how many of the top players were leaving.
DeChambeau, the USOpen champion with top 10s in all the majors this year, managed only one birdie in a round of 75. McIlroy would have needed anything under par, and those hopes ended with a triple bogey 8 on his fourth hole. He shot 75.
“I’d much rather have a disappointing Sunday than going home on Friday,” said McIlroy, who was coming off a late collapse that cost him the US Open.
Woods had a 77 to miss the cut in his third straight major, this one by eight shots. His 36-hole score of 156 matched his highest as a pro.
Lowry was at 7-under 135, and only nine other players remained under par after two days of havoc-wreaking wind off the Irish Sea.
Brown, playing in his first major championship, held it together for a 72 that puts him in the final group on the weekend with Lowry. Rose wasn’t even sure he would be at Troon until he went through 36-hole qualifying at the start of the month. He went 29 holes before finally making a bogey, and then he finished strong for a 68.
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler found a pot bunker off the tee at the downwind 18th and made bogey, but otherwise was solid as ever for another 70. He was tied for fourth just five shots behind, along with Billy Horschel (68) and Dean Burmester (69).
“I know tomorrow is going to be a long day, but I’ve done it before,” Lowry said. “For me, it’s just about going out and playing my own game, shooting the best score I can. Try not to worry about what other people are doing and just trying to take care of your own personal stuff.”
It was best to keep blinders on at Royal Troon. There were some harrowing scenes.

McIlroy ended a torrid two days at Royal Troon on 11 over par. (Reuters)

Justin Thomas, who opened with a 68 to get himself in the mix, shot a 45 on the front nine and played his best golf from there to salvage a 78 and make sure he at least made the cut.
Robert MacIntire had an even tougher start. Scotland’s biggest star after winning his national Open last week, MacIntire was stuck in pot bunkers and high grass. He was 8 over for his round through four holes — four holes! — and then played 4 under the rest of the way for a remarkable 75 to make the cut.
The cut was at 6-over 148.
Aguri Iwasaki had them all beat. He took a 9 on consecutive holes and shot 52 on the back nine for a 91. One of those 9s was on the par-3 14th, where he took four shots out of two bunkers and once had to go backward toward the fairway.
McIlroy, who started with a 78, needed a good start and instead got a triple bogey. He barely moved the ball out of thick grass on the par-5 fourth. Once he got back to the fairway, he pulled another shot into the rough, chipped that into the bunker and ended the sad tale by missing a 4-foot putt.
“Once I made the 8 on the fourth hole that was it — 22 holes into the event and I’m thinking about where I’m going to go on vacation next week,” McIlroy said.
PGA champion Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay were in the group at 1-under 141.
Another shot back was Joaquin Niemann. He had another 71 despite taking a quintuple-bogey 8 on the par-3 eighth hole — the Postage Stamp — that measures a mere 123 yards. He was in three bunkers around the tiny green and three-putted when he finally got out of them. Niemann also made six birdies in a most remarkable round of level par.
So much chaos across the century-old links, and it looked for a brief moment like Lowry might take part. He was in the right rough, but he was distracted by a photographer and angry at himself for not backing off the shot that he tugged left toward a clump of gorse.
Figuring it would be lost in the prickly mess, Lowry hit a provisional for a lost ball onto the green, a terrific shot. One problem. Someone found the ball. It was no longer lost, so the provisional ball was not in play.
Lowry took a penalty drop from the bush, going back to find a place where he had a swing, put it short of the green, chipped on and salvaged a double bogey 6.
“To be honest, I was happy enough leaving there with a 6. It wasn’t a disaster. I was still leading the tournament,” Lowry said.
And now comes a big opportunity for Lowry to reclaim that claret jug. He’s not alone in the chase, especially with Troon’s ability to make anyone look silly. Scheffler has quietly avoided some of those moments.
“I’ve played two solid rounds and it put me five shots back, and I’ll continue to try to execute and just continue to try to hit good shots and hit good putts,” Scheffler said, making it all sound so simple on a day when nothing felt easy.

7 talking points from USA Basketball Showcase in Abu Dhabi

7 talking points from USA Basketball Showcase in Abu Dhabi
Updated 19 July 2024

7 talking points from USA Basketball Showcase in Abu Dhabi

7 talking points from USA Basketball Showcase in Abu Dhabi
  • After wins over Australia and Serbia at Etihad Arena, Team USA have matches in London ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris

After a productive and jam-packed five days in Abu Dhabi, Team USA have moved on to London, where they will play two final exhibition matches —against South Sudan and Germany — ahead of their Olympic Games campaign starting on July 28.

There is a lot to unpack from the US’ victories over Australia and Serbia this week in the UAE capital.

Here are some of the main takeaways as the Americans head to Paris searching for a fifth consecutive Olympic Games gold medal.

Curry, James, Embiid likely starting trio

It is taking Joel Embiid some time to adjust to this American super team —and to international basketball in general — but US head coach Steve Kerr has made it clear the 2023 NBA MVP will be an integral part of his starting unit.

Despite Anthony Davis shining for the US so far and outperforming him, Kerr has started Embiid in all three exhibition games they have contested.

Making his Team USA debut this summer, Embiid has averaged 6.5 rebounds per game across the three friendlies he played (versus Canada, Australia and Serbia) and has combined for nine turnovers.

Kerr believes it is only a matter of time until the Sixers center hits his stride.

“He’s getting better and better every day,” said Kerr. “It usually takes big guys longer to get rhythm and flow. I love Joel. He’s a dominant player.”

The three constants in Kerr’s starting five so far throughout the team’s exhibition schedule have been LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Embiid, as the Golden State Warriors coach continues to tinker with his lineup for the remaining two spots.

“I like those three guys in the starting lineup. We’ve been looking at other guys around them and we obviously have a lot of great options, but I do like those three guys in the starting lineup,” said Kerr in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.



For someone who is used to carrying the Warriors offense year-round, Curry did not make a huge impact in the first two games but caught fire against Serbia on Wednesday with 24 points in 21 minutes and going 6-9 from beyond the arc.

Curry explained after the Australia clash that making sure Embiid is well-utilized has been a main focus for the starters.

“He demands a lot of attention so you have to utilize that and get him in position,” said Curry.

“We still have to figure out our spacing around him to give him looks, whether he shoots and scores, whether he kicks it out. And then if he’s not in the post, we’re trying to figure out different looks, and the chemistry of that group.

“I think we got a little bit better and we’ve got more games to get even better with it and utilize the threat of everything he can do and everybody else out there.”

Embiid having ‘time of my life’

While things have yet to click for Embiid, the 30-year-old American-Cameroonian player has enjoyed every moment of this training camp so far.

“It’s been good. Obviously it’s new, so we’re still working on the chemistry, reading each other. Some of the turnovers that we had, most of them have been miscommunication,” he said on Wednesday.

“But it’s good, I’m having the time of my life, I don’t have to do anything. I’m happy just chilling, just hanging out, dealing with the little things, and then just play together and win.”

Curry on adjusting to the FIBA game

With the FIBA game known to be more physical and with a faster pace compared to the NBA, players have to make significant adjustments in order to excel in this format.

For Curry, who is making his first national team appearance in 10 years, this is not necessarily the main challenge.

“The biggest difference is from game to game, there’s just such drastic different styles from country to country, the way they play,” said the 36-year-old point guard.

“That’s the biggest adjustment. Physicality, the speed, all that, we can adjust to whatever but to focus on game plan and being disciplined on that front from game to game, that’s tough, because everybody plays so different.”

The US have Serbia, South Sudan and Puerto Rico in their pool at the Olympics, meaning they will face three teams boasting basketball schools from three different continents.

We have not seen US’ full potential yet

As Bam Adebayo and James both said after their win over Serbia, we have not seen the best from this squad just yet.

The Stars and Stripes beat a Nikola Jokic-led Serbia by a 26-point margin but are not reading too much into it ahead of their rematch in Olympic pool play next week.

“Not at all,” responded Adebayo when asked if the US’ performance against Serbia reflected the team’s potential.

“We still have work to do. We still got some turnovers to clean up, we still got some defensive schemes to clean up and we still have one guy that’s still working his way back.”

James echoed Adebayo’s sentiments: “We’ve still got so much room to improve but we want to continue to get better and not waste the opportunities. I felt like tonight we got better.”

Kerr is likely to continue with the hockey subs strategy, replacing all five starters with a second unit and alternating between both groups throughout the game.

“I think the identity of the team is our depth, the strength of the team is the depth. And so, if we can play in four-, five-minute bursts of just playing intense defense, hitting bodies, rebounding, being physical, then it makes sense to play that way,” said Kerr.

“We’ll see if we keep doing it but for now, it’s allowed groups to get together, AD (Anthony Davis) and Bam (Adebayo) for example, Steph and LeBron, kind of learn how to play together, having a better feel for each other. The strength of our team is just the depth and so if we have to play that way, we’ll play that way.”

KD still out, but making progress

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kevin Durant is still nursing a calf strain and has yet to feature for this US squad but coach Kerr is hopeful the Phoenix Suns forward will be ready for Paris.

“Kevin’s been doing more the last couple of days and he’s trending in the right direction,” said Kerr on Wednesday.

As America’s all-time lead scorer at the Olympics, Durant brings a wealth of experience to this squad and will no doubt make an impact should he be ready to play.

Ant-Man made for the big stage

Anthony Edwards has evolved into one of the best players in the league this past season and the 22-year-old is bringing confidence and explosiveness to the team.

He has averaged 14.3 points per game during this preparation period for the Olympics and is delivering whether he is a starter or coming off the bench.

“I thought he took his experience in the World Cup last year and got much better and became one of the best players in the whole NBA last season,” said coach Kerr of Edwards.

“He still has things to improve on. I talk to him about it frequently, rebounding and defense, not letting anybody get behind him, keeping vision defensively.

“He’s so talented, he’s a great, great player. But the best players always get better. Every summer they keep working on new things. So I’m going to encourage Anthony to keep getting better.”



Another slam dunk from Abu Dhabi

The UAE capital continues to solidify its position as the hub for international basketball in the Middle East and has once again delivered a stellar event.

After hosting preseason games between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks in 2022, and the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves in 2023, Abu Dhabi has also proven to be the perfect spot for national teams to hold training camps and prepare for big competitions.

Before last year’s FIBA World Cup, teams including the US, Greece and Germany trained in Abu Dhabi and played exhibition games. And the Americans returned this year with the same agenda ahead of the Olympics.

Etihad Arena was sold out for both US games this week and it will no doubt be at full capacity when reigning NBA champions the Boston Celtics and the Denver Nuggets come to Abu Dhabi for preseason games in October.

“We’ve had an incredible five days here. The hospitality in Abu Dhabi has been amazing, the people are wonderful. We just had a great trip and we really appreciate how welcomed we felt from everyone here,” said Kerr.

Embiid added: “It’s been amazing. I got here and called my wife and I told her it’s really beautiful here. I’ve been having the time of my life just meeting different people.

“I’m all about culture, me being African, learning about other people’s culture, that’s big for me. So being here, seeing how beautiful it is has been an amazing experience.”

Saudi pole vaulter Al-Hizam aims to inspire Kingdom’s next generation with Olympic success

Saudi pole vaulter Al-Hizam aims to inspire Kingdom’s next generation with Olympic success
Updated 19 July 2024

Saudi pole vaulter Al-Hizam aims to inspire Kingdom’s next generation with Olympic success

Saudi pole vaulter Al-Hizam aims to inspire Kingdom’s next generation with Olympic success
  • The 26-year-old earned his spot at the Paris Games after he placed among the top 32 competitors in his sport

Saudi Arabian pole vaulter Hussain Al-Hizam will, in every sense, be making a giant leap, when he makes his Olympic debut in Paris next month.

The 26-year-old, who hails from Al-Jubail in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, earned his spot at the Games through world rankings, after he placed among the top 32 competitors in his sport.

Since March, with weekly updates from World Athletics, Al-Hizam had been optimistic about his qualification prospects. Despite initially aiming for an automatic qualification, he is content with how he made the cut and has little fear of competing at the highest level.

“I am pretty confident that I have not reached my full potential and I believe that it could all come together on that day (in Paris), that I can shock everyone. I really believe that I can do that,” Al-Hizam told Arab News from Germany, where he is doing a full body check-up with his doctor before heading to France.

Al-Hizam says it is important to ensure he is fully performance-ready and is not leaving anything to chance.

Having missed out on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Saudi athlete is determined to make his mark in Paris.

“I learned my lesson from missing the Tokyo Olympics. I should have been there, but I wasn’t following the new ranking system close enough and it was too late for me to qualify,” he said. “But I learned from that and now I am here. I am ready to show why I am here, that I can compete with the best of the best.”

Paris will be the pinnacle of Al-Hizam’s career, surpassing his performances at the 2022 and 2023 World Athletics Championships, where he finished 14th and 26th.

“I am excited to be here and to be heading to Paris, but my goal is to win an Olympic medal. That’s my focus. Enjoying the journey is part of it, but I must keep my eyes on the prize — winning an Olympic medal for my country. That is the moment,” he said.

On Aug. 2, he will compete in the qualifications against pole vault’s top 32 athletes, with a place in the top 12 the requirement to advance to the final two days later, when the top three spots will be up for grabs.

Al-Hizam is familiar with rivals but is more focused on himself.

“Pole vaulting is a solitary sport. Although I keep an eye on the other competitors, my real competition is me,” he said. “I focus on improving every time, faster, higher and more powerful than my last one — that’s what I want to achieve every time I go out there. And it will be the same in Paris. Yes, the stakes are higher, the stage larger, but it’s still the same sport and the same people I compete against all year round. So the game plan is to focus on me, my mindset and my performance.

“On the day, I will keep my pre-competition routine the same. I try to eat a normal breakfast. I am assuming it will be a morning event and as we are at the track for a long period, I will pack some snacks to take with me. It can be about four hours down by the track, so I need to keep my energy up while I am there.”

Al-Hizam also has several routines that help him stay relaxed ahead of competing.

“I like to listen to some piano music before a competition. It helps me feel calm and gives me body awareness when I listen to certain rhythms,” he said. “I don’t normally watch others compete … I spend time going over my body’s movements, what I need to do, what I want to do and envisioning. The pre-competition butterflies are key. It means I am excited and if I didn’t care about a competition, then I would just hang up my spikes.”

Al-Hizam knows that pole vaulting is not among Saudi Arabia’s top sports, like football or motor racing, but he hopes that he can show aspiring athletes — the ones who may not have been pushed to pursue track and field — that it is a worthy Olympic sport.

“I would like to think I am paving the path for the next generation, more so inspiring the parents of the young kids who want to take up track and field or another sport besides football, to push their kids, give them the opportunities, feed them healthy meals and teach them the discipline to become world-class athletes,” he said. “Because we belong here, and every four years there should be more and more athletes from my home competing on this stage — really competing, showing that just because we are relatively new to the scene doesn’t mean we should be underestimated — and winning medals at the Olympics is that exact statement.

“So, my goal in winning an Olympic medal isn’t just a personal feat. I hope that the young kids of Saudi will see me, just a kid from a small town who is able to compete with the rest of the world,” Al-Hizam said. “With countries that have a long and rich Olympic history, we have the same athletic body and competitive spirit as they do, and we deserve to be here.”