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The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games logo is seen in Tokyo. Image Credit: AFP

The Arab world encompasses 22 countries that straddle two great continents — Africa and Asia. It stretches from the Western Sahara and Mauritania in the west to Oman on the east lower tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

More than 405 million people make these lands their homes and for many of them the Tokyo Olympics being held this year, albeit a year delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is a welcome respite from the heat and the daily humdrum of life. In a region that has witnessed increasing turmoil in recent years due to wars and conflict, sports on the global front seems to offer a break.

Some undoubtedly would be cheering hard for their countrymen participating in this international event. Others would be following the sports of their interest, watching some athletes garner the glory and the gold, while others come so close but leave empty-handed. Athletes from 17 Arab countries are competing in this 32nd Olympiad. Arab participants include 14 females aged between 12 and 35 years old.

Among the notable female athletes are Yasmeen al-Dabbagh, Saudi Arabia’s fastest woman, who is representing the Kingdom. Coming from a country that only recently opened the floodgates for female athletic participation, hers would indeed be a challenge. She is slotted for the women’s 100-meter race, and hopes for a stand on the victors’ podium is a tall order considering the competition of more seasoned and well-traveled veterans.

Another female Arab athlete of note is Hend Zaza, a 12-yr old girl from Syria. Although she lost her first-round match 4-0 to a Chinese-born Austrian veteran, Zaza maintained her sportsmanship to the delight of the small crowd of reporters gathered on the sidelines and expressed her intent to come back stronger at the next Olympics after the match.

In her preparations for Tokyo, Zaza had to deal with constant power cuts that forced a number of her training sessions to be postponed. The indoor facilities she practised on would certainly not be the envy of any athlete as they were a room with four rundown tables and a rickety floor. In spite of that, her zeal for competition was not marred. She will not stop until she does indeed stand on the victor’s podium one day.

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee and one of the 29 athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team, entered the Olympic games hoping to win a swimming medal. Fleeing the civil war in Syria 2015, the 23-year-old had to swim for three hours to the Greek island of Lesbos after the engine of the inflatable boat that was carrying her along with other Syrians failed. Although she failed to get past the qualifying rounds in Tokyo, she was proud to be included in the Refugee Team. “That is how special this team is because they carry a message of hope to people that you can go through something really tough and still go forward,” she said.

As of this writing, the Arab World has garnered barely a handful of medals among the competing nations. Their total comes to a meagre count of fewer than 10 medals. Japan, a country of 125 million people, and a country that was literally decimated during World War 2, is leading the charge for gold at the Olympic games with 15 gold medals while the USA has a combined total of 37 medals.

Undoubtedly in the next few days, the Arab World will pull in a few more medals, but the numbers do not do justice to the size of their entire population. This should wake up many of our sports federations across the Arab world from their slumber. The culture of sports has fallen to the wayside in many of the countries facing unrest in spite of the clandestine efforts of a few of their athletes who train under duress in the hopes of carrying their nation’s honour.

The Arab World is full of youth who would be real gold medallists if only sports are given the proper attention they deserve. Europeans, Americans, and Far Eastern countries put a lot of resources into training athletes, unlike our countries. Sports teach kids, leadership, teamwork, discipline, and pride. Sports are looked at as a win or lose event and not as a teaching medium, character development, and for the improvement of society in many Arab nations.

Billy Bowden, a renowned Australian cricket umpire once remarked that a society without sports is like wearing your clothes without underwear. Indeed, something would be surely missing.

Sports should be part of our being and our culture just like reading and writing, and once a generation is afforded this, only then will we see more gold, silver, or bronze.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena