x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Women athletes in for the long run

Their numbers may be small, but their impact could be massive. With two women joining the UAE's squad for the London Olympics, Laura Collins looks at the cultural and physical challenges facing women athletes.

Khadija Mohammad trains at the Al Shabab club in Dubai.
Khadija Mohammad trains at the Al Shabab club in Dubai.

It could hardly be described as statistically seismic: just two competitors among more than 14,000 athletes from around the world.

Given a little bit of context, though, a very different picture, and one of far greater significance, starts to emerge. When the weightlifter Khadija Mohammad and the runner Bethlem Deslagn Belayneh step into the Olympic Stadium in London this month, they will be stepping into history.

Four years ago, Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum became the first woman to represent the UAE at the Olympics when she competed in the under-67kilogram Taekwondo in Beijing. She carried the country's flag at the opening ceremony.

Whether or not Khadija or Bethlem is given that honour, they will be standard bearers for the nation. And, regardless of how successful they are in their respective disciplines, their participation puts them at the forefront of women's sport in the UAE and the region as a whole.

According to the UAE Athletics Federation President and International Olympic Committee board member Ahmad Al Kamali: "This is unique. This is something very special for us in a GCC country."

The qualifying deadline for the 2012 Olympics was yesterday. For the first time, most of the UAE's athletes - 32 across seven different sports and the largest squad ever sent - have qualified on merit.

That two of these athletes are women is, to Mr Al Kamali, nothing short of remarkable, given that barely a decade ago the very notion of women competing at any serious international level was almost unthinkable.

He admits: "Ten years ago if I was talking about athletics for women people would think I was crazy.

"Now we have these girls competing and we have 18 women from the GCC going to the Olympics. This is a great change."

Gender equality in sport as an issue to be addressed is, it should be noted, not exclusive to Muslim countries. The goal is now enshrined in the Olympic Charter. In 2004, the IOC established a Women and Sport Commission with the goal of dismantling gender barriers. Only four months ago the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, spoke of the importance of continuing to strive for gender equality at the Games, announcing that women's boxing would feature for the first time in London.

He said in March: "Opening the Olympic Games to more women is not just a matter of basic fairness. The Games provide a global platform for female Olympians that inspires others to follow their example."

The last IOC conference on women and sport called for greater gender equality among national teams, leadership and technicians, and suggested that more female sports reporters cover core events.

But however global and many-layered the issue, it is one with undeniable resonance in this region, where the cultural challenges faced by sportswomen are both particular and keenly felt.

The list of Muslim women's sporting role models is inevitably short, but in 2008 the cause gained a powerful advocate when Nawal El Moutawakei joined the IOC Executive.

Being the first Muslim woman on that body added to her already impressive list of firsts. In 1984, the former 400metres runner from Morocco became, as she put it, "the first Muslim, Arab, African woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games". As far as she is concerned the advance of girls and women in sport is "not a revolution, it's a celebration".

Mr Al Kamali concedes: "It is a challenge educating people and educating families to allow their daughters to compete. You cannot ask to change attitudes completely in a day or night. These things take time and it is still early. A mentality has to be developed gradually."

The attempt to build that mentality, to foster awareness and encourage participation of women in sport across the region, has been telegraphed in recent months.

The second GCC Women's Sport Games took place in Abu Dhabi only last March, with more than 350 women from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE competing in a variety of sports.

In April the capital hosted its first International Conference on Women's Sports, held under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. This year for the first time Abu Dhabi's Corporate Games will feature women-only events.

Several practical barriers to Muslim women's participation have tumbled. Last summer, the International Weightlifting Federation modified its dress rules, which had effectively barred competitors from wearing the hijab or competing in outfits that extended below the elbows and knees. Had it not, Khadija, who trains with the female coach Najwan Al Zawawi, would have been unable to compete.

As Jassim Abdullrahman Al Awazi, a board member of the Emirates Weightlifting Federation and the GCC Weightlifting Organisation, says: "It is very good for Muslim countries that this issue has been raised. It is not forced. It is a choice for the athletes if they want wear it but now there are no excuses, no reason to say no."

When she first began coaching the girls four years ago, "No" was a word with which Mrs Al Zawawi was all too familiar. The coach who competed for Egypt in the 2000 Sydney Olympics says: "When I came here everyone told me I won't be successful because our girls won't be accepted as weightlifters. No one supported me, because no one thought it could be done."

Despite numerous obstacles, her protege Khadija's ambition remains undimmed. After competing in London, the 1.52m tall Emirati wants "to become one of the top weightlifters in the world". And the more that world changes the more possible that dream appears.

This year, for the first time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei agreed in principle that women athletes could be sent to represent their country at the Olympics. An injury to her horse robbed Dalma Rushi Malhas of the likely opportunity to become the first Saudi woman to compete at the Games. A bronze medal winner in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010, she had hoped to qualify for London but missed a vital month's work during the qualifying period.

Dalma would have been a genuine medal hope for Saudi Arabia had things been different but, truth be told, that makes her the exception to the rule when it comes to this new generation of female Olympians.

The 17-year-old Qatari sprinter Noor Al Maliki's personal best of 12.7 seconds in the 100m is more than a second slower than the Olympic qualifying standard of 11.38. The same is true of the Omani 100m sprinter Shnoona Al Habsi, "excited and nervous" at the prospect of representing her country in London. Her personal best is 12.58 secs, an Omani record, but outside any true chance of Olympic placing.

Equally, while Bethlem Belayneh's qualifying times have consistently outstripped any of those of her male counterparts on the UAE's national team, they are unlikely to propel her into the final, far lesswin a medal.

But success here need not be measured in medals alone. As Larry Barthlow, founder of the sports marketing company and events promoter, World Events Network and a champion of women's sport, explains: "It takes time to nurture athletes - especially runners. You don't just pour water on them and grow gold medals. It is impossible to get results instantly. This is a long game. We've been trying to get women more involved and girls more educated about what's out there."

It is a sentiment echoed by Mr Al Kamali. "Now in the UAE we've got about 40 girls from the age of 14 to 20 who we are preparing for the West Asian athletics meeting in November," he says.

"To get more women involved we need to get more girls involved at school. We need to communicate with their families and we need infrastructure - parents need to know there is a special place where women can practise their sports, women's indoors facilities, athletic tracks, clubs."

For this truly to take hold, the private sector must, Mr Al Kamali says, be more proactive and willing to support local girls with talent and the desire to develop it. However supportive the Government, they cannot be expected to cover the cost of training and kitting the athletes out, building facilities and so on.

"I sent many letters to local companies looking for sponsorship for our girls and I got zero response. It is very disappointing. It is a good cause for the local community. We need to change this mentality."

According to Mr Al Kamali he sees changes in attitude when, for example, local mothers turn up to cheer on their daughters at sports meetings - unheard of only a few years ago.When given the opportunities, he says, girls seem more determined to grasp them than their male counterparts.

"Honestly I am more happy with the women than the men. Because when you say to the women you have to be at the airport at 5am they are there with their parents. With the girls there is commitment and challenge. With the men we have a lot more difficulty."

Mr Barthlow has been working closely with Bethlem and her teammate Alia Mohammed Saeed, who had hoped to qualify for London. He too points to their impressive focus and determination claiming that it is "easier to coach women".

He points out: "Young girls tend to be more loyal, more focused, they work harder. They have the talent and the desire to work and succeed. They just need the opportunity.

"Look, it really should be enough at this Olympics to say of the girls who are there, 'Wow. They made it.'

"But remember this is about the future and, if we're talking about the next Olympics, we could be looking at sending some girls who are serious contenders."