August 14, 2016

The Arab world at the Rio Olympics

More than 400 athletes from 20 Arab countries are participating in the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

The games are a showcase of the Arab world’s evolving realities. The Rio Olympics also highlight the progress achieved by Arab women. Such progress cannot be assessed on the basis of the attire of the Arab women athletes, as some are inclined to believe. A number of the female competitors come from conservative Arab societies where participation in athletic activity would be unthinkable in conventional sportswear.

Arab women have made great strides since the 1984 Summer Olympics when Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel was the first Arab woman athlete to win a gold medal, finishing first in the 400m hurdles. At Rio, Arab delegations include women athletes.

Among them, Tunisian fencer Ines Boubakri who dedicated her bronze medal to “Tunisian women and Arab women… who have their place in society”.

There was also Egyptian weightlifter Sara Ahmed, a bronze medallist.

She, like other female athletes from the Arab world’s conservative societies, would not have been able to compete had it not been for international sports bodies easing restrictions on dress codes in recent years.

The participation of a six-member Palestinian team also reminded the world of the plight of their countrymen and women. Participation by itself is an impressive feat considering the predicament of the Palestinian people.

The participation of an Olympic refugee team also helped build awareness of displaced people everywhere. Team member Yusra Mardini from Syria was an eloquent spokeswoman. As she said, the team did “send a message to the world”.

By Day 8 of the games, three Arab countries had earned medals. There is reason of course to cheer every medal earned. All winning athletes constitute much-needed role models in an Arab region where such positive icons are sorely missing.

More Arab athletes, from all countries of the region, are participating and more Arab countries are winning in the Olympics. Egypt, Morocco and Algeria have won the most medals for Arab countries to date. In the current games, Kuwaiti and Emirati athletes have won medals showing the Arab Gulf nations are quickly catching up.

But despite the medals earned in Rio, Arab athletic performance at Olympic games remains below expectations. In 1912, Egypt was the first Arab country to take part in the Olympics. Since then, Olympians from the entire Arab world have earned 98 medals. That is less than relatively small countries such as Romania or Greece.

Sports performance on the world scene is closely related to the per capita income and the population of each country. Better international sports results also depend on the place of athletic activities in schools and on the level of human development in society.

If they are ever to catch up with the level of global athletic competition, Arab countries need more adequate budgets and policies. They need to develop awareness of the benefits of fitness programmes at a time when many Arab countries are plagued by obesity-related diseases.

One final observation: The Rio games should also remind the Arab world that close to 10 million Brazilians, including the country’s interim head of state, are of Arab origin. They could provide a precious bridge between the Arab world and Latin America even when the games are over.