To win an Olympic gold medal yourself and then help another from a different country and culture to achieve the same on the basis of friendship is hardly usual. But Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum is an unusual man. A scion of the royal family of Dubai, he could easily have given himself over to the life of a playboy. Instead he has strived to excel in every endeavour he has undertaken, and always with the benefit of his country in mind.
His passion for shooting began with his grandfather taking him hunting in the desert, and almost from the beginning he proved to be an exceptional shot. “As a boy I was crazy about shooting, and I always remember my first trip to England,” Maktoum said. With his 20-bore Browning, the wily and elusive woodpigeon was his favourite quarry.
With his natural prowess, clay target shooting also attracted him, but in Dubai at that time there was no opportunity to pursue the sport. A natural athlete, he started playing squash instead. Compact and agile with lightning-fast reflexes, Al Maktoum eventually became the national champion, but the challenge of competitive shooting still attracted him.
Maktoum made his international debut in 1997 at a World Cup shoot in Cyprus. Within two years he was winning ASC events in Trap and Double Trap. By 2000 Maktoum was a familiar figure on the international circuit, and represented his country at the Sydney Olympic Games in Double Trap. In that post-Olympic period he continued to shoot Trap and Double Trap, and while his scores in both disciplines were respectable, he was not regularly making finals.
In 2002 things changed. While watching others competing in Double Trap, it seemed to him they were all shooting in the same way. “I thought I should do it differently,” he said, and so he went home and practiced. What exactly he did differently Maktoum does not elaborate on, but with his new technique there was a significant improvement in his scores. “I felt I was on fire,” he said. In 2003 at a World Cup shoot in Lonato, Maktoum won the gold medal. In Delhi he won again. Suddenly Al Maktoum was the man to beat, and at the ISSF World Cup Final in Rome another emphatic victory earned him his third gold medal of the year.
Transformed by his insight, he had risen from a competent also-ran to the top of the rankings almost overnight. With his ambitions now fixed on the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, his run of success showed no signs of slowing down. In the Olympic year, at a World Cup shoot in Cairo, Maktoum was in gold medal position again. In world-class competition no result can be a foregone conclusion, but Maktoum was invincible and won the Olympic gold 10 targets clear of his nearest rival.
By the standards of his royal relatives, Maktoum is not a wealthy man. While certain interests in Dubai had promised him financial support for his Olympic campaign, it was not forthcoming. It was for this reason in the aftermath of the Athens Olympics he announced his retirement from shooting. Almost immediately other interested groups offered support, and in 2005 Maktoum was back on the international shooting circuit.
Having reached the pinnacle of his sport, he might have been expected to lose his momentum for a period, as many athletes do. This was not the case – Maktoum was still on fire. His belief in himself and in his technique carried him forward. At the 2005 World Championship in Italy there was an early quota place to be won for the Beijing Games in 2008. Maktoum not only became the new world champion, he also secured an Olympic quota place for the UAE.
But in spite of the gold medal in Athens and the fact he would be representing UAE in the Beijing Games, neither recognition nor support of any kind was forthcoming. By now he was 41, and a desire for a wife, family and financial security persuaded him he would have to turn his attention away from shooting. Between 2005 and 2008 he hardly competed, but with the Beijing Games looming closer he was tempted back to the game he loves.
In Beijing he missed the Double Trap final by a target. This could have been the point where Maktoum ended his shooting career and in a way it was, but he has continued to be a prominent figure in the sport; his unique insights into technique and target gun design resulted in the inception of the half-rib. Now almost standard equipment for Double Trap, the half-rib was conceived entirely by Al Maktoum. Having used Beretta guns for most of his career, he tried to persuade the company to put it into production, but he did not succeed and it became an after-market bolt-on for thousands of shooters. The design principle is to provide an uncluttered line of sight to complement the head-up position that many Double Trap shooters adopt. Clearly, it has worked.
Whatever else Sheikh Al Maktoum’s career will be remembered for, it will include his being instrumental in Great Britain winning only its third shotgun gold in the history of the modern Games. A chance meeting with Peter Wilson forged a relationship that produced, in a matter of two years, a British champion who scaled the heights of his chosen sport. And he has since developed a relationship with an Olympian at this year’s Games, Steve Scott.
Maktoum did not compete in London 2012 because of a heart condition identified the year before. That his shooting days may be over is sad, but there is clearly still a place for a man so knowledgeable, accomplished and on fire with new ideas in a sport in which he is a modern great.