Importance of athletics: To improve their performance in future athletic meets, GCC countries must take a more holistic approach to sports development Image Credit: AFP

Paris 2024 is set to be the world’s stage for the biggest sporting event of the globe, the Olympics. It is a mere 14 months away and, in many countries, active preparation has been in full swing to tone up athletes to meet the challenge.

The Summer Olympic Games, also known as the Games of the Olympiad, is a major international multi-sport event normally held once every four years and includes participation from almost all countries around the globe. It is a stage to show the athletic prowess of nations and bragging rights by the tally of medals won. The most recent Games were held in 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

For many years, athletes from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have struggled to make their mark in international athletic meets. Despite having a wealth of natural talent and resources, the GCC has consistently lagged behind in key athletic events.

In Saudi Arabia, the biggest country in the GCC, the participation of women was taboo until 2016.

Holistic approach to sports

In the last Olympics, the total tally of all GCC countries was 4 medals, with none being gold. As a comparison, Ethiopia with all its share of internal issues and conflicts managed to double that total which included four gold medals!

While many GCC countries have invested heavily in sports facilities and stadiums, the focus has largely been on hosting major events rather than developing local talent. This has resulted in a lack of world-class coaches and trainers, limited access to quality training facilities, and a dearth of development programs for young athletes.

Another key factor is cultural attitudes toward sports. In many GCC countries, there is a cultural perception that sports are not a serious pursuit and that education and career are more important. This can discourage young people from pursuing athletics as a career and can limit the amount of time and resources devoted to training and development.

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To improve their performance in future athletic meets, GCC countries must take a more holistic approach to sports development. This means investing in world-class coaches and trainers, providing access to quality training facilities, and developing comprehensive training programmes for young athletes. It also means changing cultural attitudes towards sports and promoting a more active and athletic lifestyle.

Competitive and challenging athletic environment

In addition, GCC countries must work to create a more competitive and challenging domestic athletic environment. This means organising more local and regional events, providing greater opportunities for young athletes to compete and showcase their talent, and encouraging greater engagement with international events.

As one analyst laments: ‘I think the Arab World is short of medals at international sporting events because the concept of physical education has been sadly lacking overall in the society. For women, it is virtually non-existent and for men, it is a choice. The overall culture leans towards a sedentary lifestyle where diabetes, cancer, and other diseases are too frequent and common.’

Another added: To participate in international sports requires tremendous practice and needs to be started at a very early age when the windows of opportunities are open to kids. Just as when children learn to walk and later run, sports activities need to be started at the appropriate age.

Unfortunately, what we do is spoil our kids by getting them entertained in malls and theme parks, and getting them used to unhealthy fast foods. Our schools do not provide proper environments. Schools have a few physical activities as entertainment and some bodily exercises.

There is no easy solution to the GCC’s struggles in athletics. It will take a concerted effort from governments, athletic organisations, and cultural leaders to change attitudes toward sports and invest in development programs. But by taking a holistic approach and leveraging their natural advantages, GCC countries can improve their performance in future athletic meets and compete at the highest levels. Will Paris 2024 be the change?

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