x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Female Olympians remind us of how far Arabs have to go

Many nations show so much support for female athletes, but the Arab world still fails to provide the same opportunities.

For many years, we have witnessed the western world produce female athletes of Olympic calibre. Female athletes around the world have embraced their talents and are representing their countries at the highest levels. The Summer Games in London are just the latest example.

Many nations show so much support for women athletes, while the Arab world still fails to provide the same opportunities.

Russia, the United States, China, Kenya and other countries have numerous female athletes participating in these Olympics who will bring home gold. These women excel because they are good at what they do - but they also have the full support of their countries.

As an Emirati, I am often disappointed in the lack of participation of Arab women in sports. At certain times, I don't have a clear answer as to why this is. If asked, I either say it's political, or just shrug and walk away. And to be frank, I usually go with the second option.

Don't get me wrong, it is not that the Arab world does not have talented female athletes. It just needs to promote the idea of women participating in the Olympics to encourage more young girls across the region to demand their inclusion.

The Asian Games in 2006 provided the first real opportunity for Gulf women to participate at a large-scale sporting competition. That contribution has increased over the years, along with a remarkable display in the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and the Arab Games in Doha last December.

Along with the UAE, Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all sent women to participate in the Olympics this year, the first time for the last three countries. These are remarkable steps towards a gender balance in international sport.

This is phase one. Phase two will be far more difficult.

There are so many talented female athletes in the Arab world who can only reach the highest levels of sport if they are supported fully by their countries. This support is multifaceted. First, it is financial: money must be spent on training, research and facilities for elite athletes to excel. But even more important than money is political and cultural support.

The biggest challenge Arab societies will face is adapting to the idea of young women competing in high-level sporting events. Many people still believe it is a violation of culture and religion, or perhaps a mere waste of time. But they are wrong.

The UAE, Qatar and other neighbouring countries are pushing to change this way of thinking. Lagging behind is Saudi Arabia- the recent Twitter campaign against the two female members of the Saudi Olympic team illustrates just how far the country has to go. But Saudi Arabia will not be able to keep a lid on this much longer, and conservatives are going to have to accept it.

Sport has always been an essential part of my life. It has become a release, a chance to get away from boredom and turmoil. But it hasn't always been easy. Seven years ago, during a hot summer in July, I remember calling various clubs in Dubai to ask if they had a girls' football team I could join. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the responses I got were either laughter or a simple hang up.

The UAE has come a long way since then, and the 2012 Olympic team includes Khadija Mohammed, who represents the UAE in weightlifting today, and runner Bethlem Deslagn Belayneh, who competes next week.

They are an inspiration, but they need our support. First, physical education programmes should be introduced and properly taught at every school. Second, Arab countries should send scouts to schools, and sponsor girls who are talented in any sporting field so that they can compete at an international level.

Young women gain and learn so much from participating in athletics that they cannot get anywhere else. If they are not receiving those opportunities, think of the vast amount they are missing out on.

The global status of women in sport is changing. We live in a world that can only move forward. We must work together and introduce a positive attitude towards the female role in sports.


Sara Al Boom is an Emirati university student and sport enthusiast