Warda Mohamed radiates insouciance. In the gleaming hall of the Women's Club in Doha's Aspire Zone, the top scorer in Qatar's female basketball team removes her abaya and begins shooting hoops. "This is what I really love doing," she says. "I train here for two hours five times a week. My dream is to beat teams from Europe and America in the Olympics here in Qatar." Last month at the GCC Women's Basketball Championships in Kuwait, the 16-strong Qatari national team won a gold medal and Warda scored a record 157 points in four games - netting an average of almost 20 balls per match. When she isn't winning gold medals, the 20-year-old is studying for a degree in aeronautical engineering and indulging her hobbies of playing football, listening to hip-hop and breakdancing.
Yet she downplays the notion that she has had to overcome any major barriers to participate in sport at such a high level. "Of course there is a line you cannot cross and with us it only relates to what we can and cannot wear. We have to cover our head when we play in public, and wear long trousers. But sport is all about rules. Just like you cannot commit a foul and there are restrictions on how the ball is handled. The rules are the game." Instead, she focuses on the benefits she has received. "Before I played basketball I was very disorganised. But sport helps you to organise your life. My family support me and I have seen that this is an open competition and in Qatar you can do whatever you want."
Warda's success is part of the Qatari government's long-term development strategy for the country. Although Qatar's primary source of income lies in oil and natural gas exports, the state is looking to sports to forge a new, modern cultural identity. While Abu Dhabi is investing billions developing new cultural centres and Dubai is focusing on property and tourism, Doha is pouring money into state-of-the art sports centres and the health and education of women and children, who form 70 per cent of the country's 900,000 population.
Central to Qatar's drive to become the sports centre of the Middle East is Doha's current bid for the 2016 Olympic games. If it succeeds in beating the six other candidate cities, including Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo, Qatar will be not only the first country in the region to host the Olympics but the first Muslim, Arabic-speaking country to do so. A key element in Doha's Olympic bid is its successful handling of the 2006 Asian games, where Qatar won 32 medals, including nine gold, and fielded 43 female athletes in sports including athletics, shooting, equestrianism and martial arts. The centrepiece of the games was Sports City, a hugely impressive 240-hectare precinct five miles from the city centre. The multi-purpose Aspire Sports Hall, which has a seating capacity of 3,000, is the world's largest indoor sports dome.
Designed by the French architect Roger Taillibert, who designed the Parc des Princes in Paris and the Montreal Olympic stadium, swimming pool, velodrome and Olympic village, the Aspire dome is a vast, UFO-like structure of curved steel and tinted windows, lit by night with a spectacular raft of interchanging coloured lights. Inside is a double-level, gleaming ensemble of basketball courts, gymnasiums, running tracks, swimming and diving pools, table tennis and fencing halls and an official-size football pitch. Outside are seven floodlit pitches and two tennis courts, surrounded by an expansive pedestrianised area and public running and cycling track. The place breathes civility and potential, so it is apt that it is also the home of the Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, a specialised sports training school which screens every child aged 12 in Qatar - some 8,000 a year — for potential sporting ability. The top one per cent of boys - girls are not yet admitted as students, although they do take part in training - are taken onto an elite programme which, it is hoped, will produce future champions.
The students undergo rigorous physiological testing in on-site sports science laboratories which measure everything from bone density to arm span. Students not admitted onto the elite programme can still use the facilities as part of their everyday school teaching. Aspire's talent identification programme has already seen considerable success. Waleed al-Sharshani, a 14-year-old on an Aspire scholarship, won a silver medal in sailing in the Asian games. The table tennis team was ranked fifth in the competition, losing only to teams from Korea and China, and Aspire students compete in marathons and tournaments all over the world.
But despite impressive performances on the field, the Aspire system is not all about results. Student athletes complete a rigorous daily schedule which intersperses physical training with academic lessons, meal and prayer times, from 7am to 7pm. Katia Abboud, a spokesman for Aspire, said "We are trying to develop an all-round character to represent the country at the highest level. It is not just about being an athlete. If you don't want to study, you will not be given the chance to come to Aspire."
Aspire's sports director, Dr Andreas Bleicher, who was previously the director of the Olympic training centre in Cologne, is responsible for co-ordinating some 3,000 Qatari schoolchildren in Doha and in 15 "talent centres" all over the country. He says Qatar has seen "big cultural changes" through sport in the last four years. "In the past, the heat and the culture here did not encourage sport. Very few females were involved. But now it's changing. We have involved the whole community in our programmes and now in the evening you see local people running, walking and cycling, because we have the facilities."
Bleicher said one of his main challenges was changing the attitude of the boys admitted to the academy. "At first we had some problems with their motivation, and with the fact that some of them were staying out very late with their families and going away for several months in the summer. We had to talk to the parents and explain that if you start training at seven o'clock in the morning but go to bed at two o'clock in the morning, you can't survive. But when you have them here on a daily basis they become like other children in Europe and Australia."
Bleicher's summer camp programme is impressive. All full-time students travel to Europe for competitions and training camps. In football, for example, in the first three-week summer camp, three teams travel to Leverkusen in Germany, two to St Etienne in France and two to Porto in Portugal. On their return, the teams travel to Ireland, England, Denmark and other European countries for three weeks of competitions. "The table tennis teams go to China and Spain, the squash players to South Korea and the Netherlands and for athletics they go all over the world." As if that wasn't enough of a logistical challenge, Aspire last year screened a staggering 429,000 schoolchildren from seven African countries, awarding scholarships to three young football players from Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon.
Strolling around the interior of the sports dome, I'm approached by four enthusiastic young girls whose parents are from Egypt and Palestine. Noor, 11, and Sandra, 10, both confident, outgoing gymnasts, attend school sports training at Aspire with their younger sisters. They introduce me to Melanie Longdill, Aspire's female talent centre coordinator, who explains the difference she sees in the girls she has worked with. "We start at the beginning, because at first these girls don't know the basics about sport. We teach them the fundamentals of movement and balance and work on their motor skills with balls of different sizes. We practice shooting with one hand and hand-eye co-ordination, as well as their English skills." According to Longdill, girls who have been on the programme for a year are more confident with their peers and strangers and have a better all-round education.
Taleb Meteab al-Saaq, the secretary general of the Qatar Equestrian Federation, who has a training schedule involving 300 Qatari schoolchildren at new equestrian facilities, which include an air-conditioned indoor arena and stables, tells a similar story. "I am working very hard to build a Qatari female equestrian team, but the problem with the girls is that they are shy. When they come here they have to start from nothing and of course sometimes they fall down. Sometimes they are very shy of the boys who laugh at them. But I tell them to break the heads of the boys, because they have a much better feeling with the horse. They are much more patient and have a better emotional understanding. I give out 50 applications to girls and get five back, but we are getting better. Five years ago it was zero, only European girls used to come here to ride."
Dr Aneesa al Hitmi, the president of the Qatar Women's Sport Committee (QWOC) and assistant head of sports education the ministry of education, says Qatar is focusing on sport because it has a positive impact on all areas of life, including education, health, recreation, diet and the family. The QWOC was formed in 2001 at the order of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the second wife of the Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who is also pursuing sports education reform policy initiatives under the banner "Education for a new era." "Since 2001 women have had a much greater awareness of the importance of sports in their lives. We now have many female players, coaches, referees, teachers and even sports journalists. Participation is increasing throughout the Gulf region, but we are leading the way. Qatar has the best equipment in the Middle East because our government is behind it and the people are behind it. We have the will and we have the means."
Still, al Hitmi stressed that there was more work to be done. "More than a quarter of a million children in the GCC region have diabetes. Women have high rates of obesity and high blood pressure and there are some serious problems with drugs. Sport can help solve all these problems." Key to the appeal of sports in the region, al Hitmi says, is the fact that sporting values are compatible with those of a modern Islamic society. "Sport is very important for children because it teaches them forgiveness, co-operation, communication and generally how to have a good attitude."
This is echoed by Dr Saif Ali al-Hajari, the vice-chairman of the Qatar Foundation, a private, non-profit organisation founded in 1995 by Sheikh Hamad. Guided by the refreshingly enlightened principle that a nation's greatest asset is the potential of its people, the foundation's flagship project is Education City, a vast new centre including the Qatar Science and Technology Park and new campuses for several major American universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, Georgetown University and Cornell. "We need good people to face the problems of the future. We don't just want to be a consumer society. We have to put our resources to good use and promote cultural dialogue. Sport is one of the best ways of bringing all this together."