Mutaz Barshim admits he has emerged as a trailblazer in Qatar’s battle of the bulge, encouraging compatriots to incorporate exercise and healthy living as part of a worrying lifestyle trend.
The Gulf state, like many of its neighbours, is racked by increasing rates of obesity, vitamin D deficiency, cholesterol and diabetes, largely linked to a lifestyle that includes little or no exercise and a penchant for fast food.
In world track and field, Barshim has established himself as one of the real stars ahead of the 2019 world championships on home soil and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo a year later.
But the world high jump champion, who was named IAAF World Athlete of the Year last season after finishing his campaign undefeated, realises he has a greater responsibility off the track.
“I’m a sportsperson,” he said. “But it’s becoming a duty for me because I’m now becoming an ambassador for the sport.
“When I’m talking about sport, it’s not profesional sport but sport as a lifestyle. You have to add sport to your lifestyle, it’s each house, each family.
“From that you never know what will happen.”
Latest studies show that more than 70 percent of the Qatari population are obese and a 2016 report by the Qatar Biobank medical research facility, based on 5,000 nationals, shockingly revealed that 83 percent of the population enjoyed little or no physical exercise.
Amid growing concerns over obesity, more than a million Qataris are even given a day off work each year to take part in a nationwide day of sport.
– ‘Moving forward’ –
But Barshim, talking at a press conference in a downtown Doha shopping mall where there was no mistaking the wafts of roasting coffee and cinnamon buns, argues that things were changing.
“I’ve been participating in a lot of programmes with the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC), with health departments,” he said.
The QOC’s motto is, tellingly, “Sport for life”, in full knowledge that the eyes of the world will be on Qatar in the run-up to it hosting not only next year’s world athletics championships but also the 2022 football World Cup.
“We do so much exercising, touring and guiding talking to people and it’s been working out really well. We are really moving forward with that.”
That has manifested itself in increased interest in the Diamond League meet, which will be held this year in Doha on Friday, he says.
“Definitely, three, four five years ago at the stadium it was just people doing the sport, not people outside that,” Barshim said.
“You see now that you’re affecting people, people are inspired, changing. I have many families coming even to my house, asking to go to the stadium with me.
“I see the changes coming. Sometimes it maybe needs time, but it’s coming, definitely.”
Barshim added: “I feel that I’m inspiring people by doing what I’m doing and by always trying to be the best of the best and even better.
“I want people to enjoy sport as a lifestyle and enjoy their time in it, and not to think about the Olympics as the first goal because it comes step by step.”
Mutaz Barshim of Qatar earned the IAAF’s Male Athlete of the Year award in 2017