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Saudi sports culture and the Olympic Movement
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 11 - 08 - 2012

Last week Saudi Arabia celebrated the success of the Saudi equestrian team which won the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. This was the first team medal for Saudi Arabia. The four members of the Saudi team, Kamal Bahamdan, Prince Abdullah Al-Saud, Ramzi Al-Duhami and Abdullah Sharbatly are heroes who have boosted Saudi public morale.
Saudi female athletes Wojdan Shahrkhani and Sarah Attar also made sports history for Saudi women. Wojdan who competed in the +78kg judo heavyweight category, and Sarah in the 800 meter event were the first Saudi women to ever compete in the Olympics. They represent the younger generation of women who are competitive and will not give up their right to exercise and lead a healthy lifestyle.
It is unfortunate that the participation of the two Saudi women in the Olympics triggered a strong online attack by some ultraconservatives who slandered them and denounced their initiative as un-Islamic. However, it was very rewarding to witness the prompt response from the louder voices of sports enthusiasts who congratulated the brave athletes and supported their daring attempt to compete in the global event. Lina Almaeena, a long time campaigner for sports for women in Saudi Arabia, was proud and excited about the historic participation of the two Saudi women in the Olympic Games. She is already making plans to qualify her Jeddah United Basketball team for the next Olympics which will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Jeddah United has been organizing sports events for young girls to help develop the skills of Saudi athletes and prepare them to compete in national and international events.
The Saudi government in 2012 put a stop to one of the most aberrant edicts or “fatwas" which declared physical exercise and sports for girls immoral and un-Islamic. Based on this fatwa, physical education was banned in public schools for girls, and women were not legally allowed to play sports anywhere in the Kingdom. However, such fatwas and restrictions belong to the past. The Kingdom is witnessing a new era where women have been granted official approval to participate in the Olympics; the government has allocated a large budget to build sports facilities in girls' schools and the Ministry of Education has announced that it will include physical exercise in the school curriculum.
Meanwhile, more needs to be done to promote the culture of sports and to encourage young Saudis to become better athletes. There is no substitute for proper training and serious exercise. Young athletes need to understand the value of discipline and hard work in order to qualify for the next Olympic Games. What is also needed is a better strategy to identify and train young people talented in sports and to develop more qualified Saudi athletes who meet Olympic standards.
It is equally important to promote the culture of the Olympics Movement and its universal values of excellence, friendship and respect. These values are the foundation upon which the Olympic Movement combines sports, culture and education for the betterment of humankind.
The value of excellence is based on giving one's best; it is not only about winning, but also about participating, achieving personal goals, and striving to do one's best with a strong body, mind and will. Young aspiring men and women athletes need to know that the Olympic Movement is also about friendship and building a peaceful and better world through sports. It provides a model for excellent effort, and creates common ground to reach citizens of more than 200 countries in spite of political, economic, gender, racial or religious differences. It provides the financial and the programmatic support for the development of athletes and the advancement of women in the world of sports. These core values are brought to life through the principles of humanism, universality and the alliance between sports, education and culture.
Many Saudis are watching the Games daily and following the progress of their teams. Media professionals should take this opportunity to stress the Olympic principle that the practice of sports is a human right, and that every individual must have the opportunity to practice sports, without any discrimination in light of the Olympic spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
There is a growing sense of optimism that has spread among all sports advocates and enthusiasts in the Kingdom. Saudi athletes are the pride of the nation and the hope for a better future. They have the backing of a vibrant young generation that is eager to see them succeed and qualify for future gold medals. Educators and media professionals have an obligation to support our athletes and project the universal character of the Olympic Movement, its respected global presence and its distinctive success. Above all the Saudi public needs to be aware that Olympic values matter to all peace-loving citizens of the world today.—Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

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