BEIJING // As she steps out bearing the nation's flag in Beijing's Olympic stadium tonight, Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid will be sending a powerful message to women across the entire Arab world that there are no limits to what they can achieve, the UAE's top Olympic official said yesterday. Sheikha Maitha's groundbreaking moment as the first Gulf woman to carry her country's flag at the Olympics comes against a background of discrimination against sportswomen in some Arab countries. Saudi Arabia's team, for example, includes no women.
Ebrahim Abdul Malek, general secretary of the National Olympic Committee, told The National ithat Sheikha Maitha had been deeply moved when she was asked to carry the flag, describing it as her "historic moment" at what promises to be a glittering ceremony. "We are making history here," he said. "This is something that every UAE citizen and anyone connected with the country can feel really proud of.
"We are sending a clear and powerful message to all women in the UAE that now the Government strongly supports sport across all sectors of society and that there is no difference between male and female. If they work they will get their chance." The message, he said, was one for "the entire Gulf and the whole Arab world. It is a clear message to all Arab women at home that everyone, man and woman, should simply work hard at their sport. There are no limits at all."
Sheikha Maitha 28, who will compete in the women's under-67kg taekwondo tournament, also carried the flag at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, but emotion overcame her when she was asked to lead out the country's team in Beijing. "She said it would be her historic moment to carry her country's flag at the Olympics. At the Asian Games in Doha she was very, very happy when we asked her to carry the flag but when it came to doing it at the Olympics she was almost in tears. We are really proud of her," said Mr Malek.
Sheikha Maitha is not the first Arab woman to carry her country's flag at an Olympic opening ceremony. Princess Haya of Jordan - now married to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai - carried the flag for Jordan when she competed in showjumping at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The UAE Olympic team is setting new standards right across the board in Beijing. For the first time, there are two female athletes on the team, which itself is the biggest ever, with eight athletes competing across seven sports.
That Sheikha Maitha and Sheikha Latifa al Maktoum, who will compete in equestrian show jumping in Hong Kong, are both members of Dubai's Royal Family underlined the country's commitment to equality in sport, said Mr Malek. "They are not just any women - they are members of the Royal Family. It proves that the UAE leaders support women in any sport really strongly. It is not just words - they are starting with their own family.
"In our country, women are approaching 40 per cent of the workforce. Women work in all sectors side by side with men, building our society and our economy. Why should sport be behind this? Sport should be the leader," he said. The final members of the UAE's team - judo expert Saeed Rashid Omar al Qubaisi, men's 100-metre swimmer Obaid Ahmed Obaid and 200-metre sprinter Omar Jumaa al Salfa - arrived in Beijing in the early hours of yesterday morning.
They had about a week to get over any jet lag before their events, said Mr Malek. Athens shooting gold medallist Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum has already been in Beijing for a week. One of his events - the men's trap shooting - begins on Saturday. The squad has today off, except for the shooters, who have a day of scheduled official practice before tonight's opening ceremony. The mood in the camp was good, Mr Malek told The National, with the team aiming to better the UAE's performance in Athens but wary of the extra pressure the gold medal of four years ago put on their shoulders.
"In Athens we got a gold medal - this time we are aiming to do better. Having a gold medal means the name of the UAE goes around the world and this is what we are aiming for," he said. "The team is under more pressure in Beijing than four years ago because now everyone knows the UAE is a gold-medal champion. It puts the players under pressure but we have spoken to them about it to try to keep the pressure off. We asked them to be relaxed, to put all their energy into their training and to keep their mind away from the result, not to think that the gold is something they should get."
He added that national pride was far more important to the athletes than the prize money of Dh1 million (US272,250) that would be awarded to any UAE athlete who won gold in Beijing. "It is there to motivate the athletes but I'm sure they aren't looking at the money. They have their sights set on raising the UAE flag as the national anthem sounds across this huge event," he said. The UAE's athletes staying in the Olympic Village will have access to a restaurant serving halal food and there are prayer rooms for Muslims as well as adherents to other religions, such as Christianity or Buddhism. A team of 10 imams who speak Arabic or English is also available.
The hi-tech Olympic Village uses solar power to light lawns, courtyards and streets, according to the UN environment agency Unep. "The facilities are extremely well prepared and the infrastructure is perfect. The Chinese people are very friendly," said Mr Malek. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org