The Arabs and the Olympics

As we watched the Olympics, my nine-year-old daughter Dina kept on hounding me this week. Where are the Arabs, she kept on asking every time a medal was issued? Where are the Palestinians, where are the Jordanians she kept on asking every time a list of players was flashed on the TV screen.

Although the Arabs have participated in the Beijing 2008 Olympics and won bronze, silver and even gold, the level and size of the victories certainly don’t reflect the size and abilities of the Arab world. Why?

There are some routine answers. One can point out to general absence of national support to sports, absence of equipment and facilities, absence of strong competition and experience in international sporting events. Certainly to some of the countries like Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq one can add the absence of political tranquillity and simple personal security and peace of mind. Certainly this can explain why Arab countries with relative tranquillity and peace of mind like some of the North African countries have in the past and continue to win medals at the various Olympic settings. The first gold medal in Beijing for example went to a Tunisian swimmer. Ironically the small Palestinian contingent of four had two swimmers, one from Bethlehem and the other from Jerusalem, both of whom improved their times, but were nowhere to be seen in any of the final runs.

Arabs have in the past, and continued this year, to win in endurance events. Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli followed a tradition in Arab sports successes by winning the 1,500 metres; Rashid Ramzi from Bahrain also won gold in the men’s 1,500. Previously Morocco, Algiers and Syria had all won events that require endurance rather than short-term speed or special agility.

While Arabs have failed in non-endurance sports, the most obvious failure for Arabs since the establishment of the Olympics has been their failure at team sports. As far as I know Arabs have never won any team event at the Olympics. Team events require, obviously, team work and much more support and attention. The individual wins have often come in spite of national support rather than because of it. Commentators noted this year that there are very few repeat winners. Once an individual wins – basically on his own – governments get involved in taking credit for his or her success, which becomes a formula for failure rather than future success

Arab sports has traditionally suffered from another problem. Almost all the Olympic committees are headed by senior political officials. While this might be helpful in order to get political clout for the needs of future Olympians, the danger this poses is that partisanship might easily slip in and influence decisions that should be made strictly on professional basis.

On a slightly different note, the Arab media has finally accepted to recognise the Chinese pronunciation of their capital. After beginning the Olympics by using the term Peking in Arabic, when the whole world changed to Beijing years ago, Arab commentators started to make the change. Being ignorant of the difference, I did a little research about the different names.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government adopted the pinyin transliteration method and used this to write all of the proper names (including place names and people’s names), using the Latin alphabet. Theoretically, this was when Peking became known in the West as Beijing. In reality, however, the West was using the old spelling long after it had been replaced in China. It was only some time in the 1980s that China started to enforce its official name on all flights, sea routes and official documents.

The Beijing 2008 Olympics is an important international parley. It allows citizens of all countries for a short time to put aside international political crises and concentrate on a competition that is supposed to allow all to compete on an equal basis. Arabs have a long way to go before they can reach the levels that reflect the tradition and aspiration of their citizens. As we enjoy the few victories of this season, let us take a collective pledge to begin, the day after the end of this round, preparing for the next round in 2012 to be held in the British capital London.