Arab women athletes competing in Rio
Beirut - War, displacement, poor facilities, scarce funds and social pressures will not stop Arab women athletes from competing at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Of course the absence of equipment and facilities hinders the efficiency of my training. However, my ambition to make a record helps me overcome all hindrances on the way,” said Egyptian diver Maha Abdel Salam, 17.
Abdel Salam is among 121 athletes representing Egypt at the Olympics. The delegation includes 36 women, the largest female representation in decades.
Abdel Salam has been preparing for the Games for months, training three times a day and strictly following a diet prescribed by her Chinese coach.
“We have big dreams of making history and I think we are more than capable of doing just that,” Abdel Salam said.
For Syrian athletes, the odds are greater, compounded by war and scarce funds. Even after five years of devastating conflict, Syria will be represented at the Rio Games by seven athletes, three of whom are women.
“Most of the participants will be competing in track and field and athletic sports. They have been mainly preparing for the big day in training camps abroad,” journalist Mohamad Abbas said.
Female swimmer Bayan Juma has been able to train thanks to a scholarship from the Russian sports federation. “She has been working hard for the past two years and is actually training with Russian athletes. The same applies to Ghofran Mohammad, who has trained in several camps abroad and will be competing in athletics,” Abbas said.
In addition to the official Syrian team, two Syrian athletes, including 18-year-old female swimmer Yusra Mardini, will be part of the first refugee team to compete at the Olympic Games. Like millions of compatriots, Mardini fled violence at home and is settled in Germany where she trained with the help of the German federation. She and her sister Sarah were among Syria’s brightest swimming stars until the war interrupted their progress.
Libyan swimmer Daniah Hagul, 17, is the sole woman representing her country at the Games. Few women have ever represented Libya at the Olympics but for Hagul, her parents’ decision to go into exile to Malta in the 1990s was a catalyst.
In Libya, very few girls know how to swim or would wear a swimming suit in public but, being raised in the Mediterranean island, she started swimming at the age of 4. In addition to defying conservative mindsets and social pressure, Hagul was faced with financial challenges because of conflict in Libya. A crowd-funding campaign, “Help fund Daniah’s Olympic dream” collected more than $7,700 to finance the cost of training and coaching.
Lebanese women athletes outnumber men in the nine-member team. “Lebanese women have always had a good presence in sports… We have athletes who are completely dedicated to training. Some have taken leave from work to be able to move from one training camp to another inside and outside Lebanon,” said Mazen Ramadan, the head of Lebanon’s Olympic delegation to Rio.
Table tennis player Mariana Sahakian qualified for the Rio Olympic Games by winning the Hong Kong Olympics Qualification tournament. She recently returned from a 15-day training camp in China. “It was a good experience as I was practicing with Chinese coaches and players, the number one in the world,” Sahakian said before travelling to Rio.
Sahakian said she hopes to achieve good results: “We are going such a long way from Lebanon to Rio and I will do my best to make it worthwhile.”
After the landmark participation of its two women athletes in the 2012 Olympics, Saudi Arabia will be sending four women Olympians to Rio in 2016 to represent the conservative kingdom. They will be competing in judo, fencing and running.
Female athletic representation from other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) is also set to increase, although the majority competing will not do so under the International Olympic Committee’s traditional qualifying system but rather through its wild-card system.
From the United Arab Emirates, four female athletes will compete in running events and weightlifting. Qatar, which like neighbouring Saudi Arabia had female participation for the first time in 2012, will send two female athletes, a swimmer and a sprinter.
Bahrain will be sending more female athletes to the Rio Games than males, with 14 women competitors and 12 males. They will compete in track and field events.
Tunisia fields 19 female athletes for the Games, including world-class runner Habiba Ghribi, who won the gold medal in the 3,000m steeplechase four years ago at the London Games.
Morocco also sends 19 female athletes to the Olympics and Algeria’s Olympic team includes ten women.