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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Muslims at Olympic Games
By Ashraf A. Shah

Riyadh: Modern Olympic games are being organized since 1896. Despite wars and boycotts, the games survived political struggles and are currently considered to be the top sports event around the globe. Participation is important than winning. 

Hicham El Guerrouj celebrates his two gold medals

Hicham El Guerrouj celebrates his two gold medals

While going through the final tally at Athens 2004 medals, one will get a clear view that the performance of Muslim countries remained below average. One of the main reasons is the lack of a societal positive attitude towards sports in Muslim societies. 

Being in an Arab country I realized during the recent Olympic that the Muslim world has a new hero. He is Hicham El-Gerroudj, the Moroccan running champion who bagged two gold medals at this year’s summer Olympics in Athens. For several days images of his heroic exploits, punctuated by smiles and tears of joy, have provided something of a relief from the Arab televisions’ normal fare.

El-Gerroudj’s triumph, however, cannot hide the fact that, for the world’s 57 Muslim majority nations, this was probably the worst Olympics ever.

To start with, the Muslim nations, who together account for some 1.2 billion people, almost a fifth of humanity, were represented by no more than five percent of the participants at Athens, a decline in relative numbers compared to the Sydney Summer Games four years ago. 

The Muslims share of medals was even lower. Of the 57 Muslim countries only 12 won any medals. Of the 892 medals distributed in Athens, only 42 went to Muslim countries. Of the 287 gold medals, Muslim nations won only 13. This means that all the 57 Muslim nations won fewer medals than Australia which, with a population of 18 million, bagged a total of 49, including 17 gold.

None of the Muslim nations featured in the top 21 athletic nations winning medals at Athens. Turkey emerged as the leader of the Muslim group of nations by securing the 22nd place with nine medals, including three gold. Kazakhstan, which won six medals, was in the 37th place followed, in the 40th place, by Azerbaijan, which won five medals, including one gold. Iran was in 43rd place with four medals. The lowest position achieved by an Arab country was that of Egypt, in 46th place, with four medals — one gold. Of the 22 members of the Arab League only three others secured places on the list: Morocco, in 51st place with three medals, including El-Gerroudj’s two golds, United Arab Emirates in 68th place with one gold, and Syria in 75th place with a bronze.

China, whose population is almost equal to that of the 57 Muslim nations combined, won 62 medals, including 31 golds.

Almost all the medals won by Muslim nations were in individual sports. When it came to collective sports, Muslims were almost nowhere. The exception was Iraq’s football team, which reached the finals and secured the fourth place.
Why do Muslim nations do so badly in international sports? The real answer lies in the marginal art that Muslim nations play in a world system in the creation of which they did not play an active part and in which they do not quite feel at home. Within the Muslim group of nations those that are least "Islamic" did the best. The secular republics of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan bagged 24 of the 42 medals won by the Muslim nations, including six of the 13 gold medals.

Six nations have labeled themselves "Islamic republics" in recent years. They are Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Only one, Iran, won any medals — two gold, one silver and one bronze.

In many Muslim countries the more traditional elements regard sports as an indulgence that could divert people’s attention from religious duties.

Some theologians are opposed to sports because it requires physical contact. And that, in a culture which is uncomfortable with the human body as such, is always a source of alarm. Iranian religious leaders, for example, have tried for decades to ban free-style wrestling, a sport that has a history of 3000 years in the country. 

Some Muslims fear sports as an activity that could open spaces beyond the control of the regime. They are also uncomfortable with sports stars whose popularity could nibble at the prestige of the "supreme leader". Often, Muslim sports champions end up either as officials of the regime or flee into exile or take to drugs and alcohol en route to early death.

With a good portion of their resources allocated to the military, most Muslim nations have little money left to spend on such "luxuries" as sport. Iran, for example, boasts only one Olympics size swimming pool, built in the 1970s by the Shah for the nation’s once famous water-polo team. In Indonesia fewer than five percent of school-age children receive regular physical education. In most cases Muslim athletes must hold one or more jobs to pay for their own training. Eight of the 13 athletes who won gold medals either trained outside the Muslim world or benefited from private donations rather than government support at home. Turkey, the leader of the Muslim world in sports, devotes less than one percent of its national budget to sports, compared to 18 percent for defence.

There is one other reason why the Muslim world does so badly in international sports: the virtually total absence of women. In Athens women athletes represented 39 percent of the total. In the case of the Muslim countries, however, women athletes accounted for no more than nine percent. Some Muslim countries brought no women athletes at all while others, including Iran, came with a single one, fully hijabed from head to toe.

Most estimates show that women account for more than half of the population of all Muslim nations. And yet they are almost completely shut out of the world of sports. In some countries physical education is forbidden for girls. In others, like Iran, fear that men might steal illicit glances of the female body prevents the building of sports facilities for women. By denying more than half of their population the opportunity to compete in any sport, Muslim nations reduce their overall chances of winning medals at events such as the Olympics.

The fact is that in many Muslim countries women are shut out of numerous sporting fields, notably swimming, cycling, riding, wrestling, football and, of course, gymnastics.

Having done steadily worse in the past four Olympics, there is little hope that the Muslim nations would do any better in Beijing in four years time from now.

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