x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Inspiring success from GCC women athletes, now for the Olympics

The past weekend's GCC Games show just how far Arab women have come in sports, and how far they still have to go ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid, right, kicked her way to a gold medal Thursday at the GCC Women’s Games.
Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid, right, kicked her way to a gold medal Thursday at the GCC Women’s Games.

A rare feeling availed itself last week in Abu Dhabi, a sense of being a privileged witness to an energetic blooming in a cultural history.

In six sports around the capital, women from five countries competed and won medals and stood for national anthems in the second GCC Women's Games.

At the taekwondo venue, droves of schoolgirls lent shrieking noise and chants of "UAE!"

At the volleyball venue, boys hopped and pounded the glass in delight over the UAE women's defeat of Kuwait.

A pioneering generation competed, and an ensuing generation witnessed.

After Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid descended the medal stand from receiving gold on Thursday, she said: "The level of the participation was high and it's improving. It's very, very evident that the countries have put down a solid foundation. They have an aim. And they are working very hard to reach a world level. It's very evident."

She observed a foundation widening, the young witnesses charming and the message toward them affirming "a playing field in which everyone is equal".

"I think we're talking about the Gulf and we're talking about women in the Gulf representing countries in Olympics," she said. "And that is a very, very big step."

Crediting her father as her role model, she aims for the 2012 London Olympics, epitomising the ambitious energy in the hall.

As Fatma Hassan, captain of the Dubai volleyball team, put it: "We were maybe for five years waiting for something like this, for a championship [event] like this."

"Less than one year" with this national team, Hassan said, "and we are growing to be good. So I think nice things are waiting for us."

She spoke in a city enlivened with roughly 350 athletes in bowling, shooting, athletics, volleyball, taekwondo and equestrian. The Games mattered "not only for taekwondo," the UAE gold medallist Basma Essa said, "but the fact that you have a focus on women's sports in the GCC."

And as the manifold health benefits of sport start to energise one generation, here comes another.

Noora Al-Ammari, 16, a Bahraini taekwondo artist, found "a good experience, and it's my first time abroad. I am one of the three youngest players on the Bahraini team. I played my first match yesterday against the UAE, and it was hard, but at least I got points, which is better than nothing."

Notably, she receives enthusiastic parental support "especially from my dad. He thinks taekwondo's a good game for me.

"He likes how we compete, how we get confidence and stuff. It teaches respect and commitment."

Of course, all pioneers ram into walls.

Abrar Al-Fahad, a 26-year-old Kuwaiti gold medallist in taekwondo, sees "improvement" but craves "more participation," noting that only Kuwait and Bahrain entered her weight division, and that in Kuwait, "We have only six girls, so we get to spar only against each other." She regarded Sheikha Maitha's numerous training partners and the UAE's Korean coaches with a healthy envy.

"The taekwondo in the Gulf for a while was very weak," said Byoung Hoon Kim, a UAE coach hailing from the sport's national birthplace. "But these last two to three years, it's going up," enough to foresee trying bigger realms such as "Egypt, Jordan, Morocco".

In the frustration vein, the UAE gold medallist Essa, 27, cannot find all the training essential to match her furnace-like will to improve.

While extolling the event, she said: "I have to beg for training with the national team coach. We came to know about the tournament just less than a couple of weeks ago. In terms of the federation, they're still unorganised.

"I'm not talking financially. I don't need money. It's just the support that's not there" within the federation. "It's available but we're not utilising it. I worked with my national team coach and just because he likes me, I got to train once a week. I'm not being pessimistic. It's definitely a step forward … It's a paradigm shift. You need to change the mentality."

Abu Dhabi staged further budding of that change.

Said Hassan, the volleyball captain, "Now I see everybody, like the foundation, standing with us. The sheikhs, they all are standing with us."

And as for the young bearing witness, Sheikha Maitha said of the girls toward whom she waved during her post-victory exhilaration: "I think if I can do it, they certainly can.

"That's what I'm trying to show. There is no limitation. If you have the drive, if you have the ambition, pursue it.

"I think the main thing is education. The main thing is to try to reach out to families to show that it's very noble to represent a country with a sport."