Arabs hope for Olympic breakthrough

Athletes and coaches aim to improve on poor performances at earlier games.

    The Qatari delegation to the Beijing games is fielding a record 25 athletes [GALLO/GETTY]

    Despite less than mediocre performances during past Olympic games, Arab athletes and coaches say they are hoping to make their best showing yet in Beijing.

    In nearly 100 years of Olympic competition, the combined tally of medals won by all Arab countries is 73.

    At 22 countries, the Arab nations constitute almost 11 per cent of the total number of participating nations (204). However, the average number of medals won - 3.48 medals every four years - has been uninspiring.
    In the last Olympic games in Athens, for example, Arab countries won only 10 of the 929 medals available - a little over one per cent.

    Shouaa Ghada, a Syrian heptathlete who won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta games, told Al Jazeera Sports that she is hopeful that Arabs will be among the medallists this year.

    "Algeria is heading in the right path [in terms of preparation]," she said, adding that she expected Sudanese runner Abubaker Kaki to bring a medal home.

    Kaki, who became the youngest world indoor winner of the 800-metre final in March 2008, hopes to secure Sudan's first gold medal.

    On June 6, 2008 he set a new World Junior record at the Bislett Games Golden League meeting in Oslo, Norway, finishing in 1:42.69.

    Egypt leads tally

    Arab participation

    Lebanon goes into Beijing with six athletes participating in athletics, javelin, swimming and judo.

    Lebanon's greatest hope at the Olympics is Gretta Taslakian, a 100m and 200m runner, who won two gold medals in the last Arab games in Egypt.

    She will attempt to earn her country's fifth Olympic medal, but local newspapers have called Lebanon's Beijing dreams an "impossible road".

    Shouaa Ghada, Syria's first Olympic gold medallist, says her country's team in Beijing faces many challenges and that chances of winning medals are relatively negligible.

    According to the secretary general of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Palestine's delegation, consisting of just four athletes, represents a symbolic presence.

    Palestine's Olympic participation has been consistent since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

    Jordan goes into the games with seven athletes, with women outnumbering the men (four to three).

    Jordan's most realistic chance of a medal is taekwondo champion Nadine Dawani.

    Jordan has been participating in the games since 1980.

    Though the modern version of the Olympic games began in 1896, it was not until 1912 that Arabs appeared on the international sporting scene.

    Egypt became the first Arab country to send an Olympic delegation - fencer Ahmed Hassanein - to the 1912 Stockholm games.

    Sixteen years later, Egypt won its first competitions - two gold medals in weightlifting and wrestling and a silver and bronze in diving - at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

    Since then it has maintained its competitive edge over other Arab countries and leads the Olympic chart among Arab nations with a total of 23 medals.

    In Beijing, Egypt is represented with the largest Arab delegation of more than 100 athletes competing in handball, field hockey, badminton, synchronised swimming, judo, boxing, taekwondo, athletics, fencing and the pentathlon.

    Morocco makes history

    The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics marked a watershed moment for Arab athletics when Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Arab woman to win a gold medal, participating in the 400m hurdles.

    Fellow countryman Said Aouita also brought home the gold in the 5000m men's marathon.

    Moroccan talent continued to emerge as athletic sensation Hicham El Guerrouj returned from the 2004 Athens Olympics with two gold medals in the 1500m and 5000m races. Morocco comes in second to Egypt with 19 Olympic medals.

    Speaking to Qatar's daily Al Arab newspaper, Aoutia, who is also an analyst for Al Jazeera Sports, was optimistic that Beijing will witness an improved collective performance from Arab delegations.

    Many sports observers believe that Arabs have traditionally been more successful in individual sports as opposed to team sports and that in Beijing they will be focusing on track and field, weightlifting, and the equestrian competition.

    Aoutia agrees, adding that athletes such as Bahrain's Ethiopian-born Maryam Yusuf Jamal will likely win a gold medal in track and field events.

    Jamal is the International Association of Athletics Federations 1500m world champion and holds the record for the 3000m race at 8:28:27, set in Oslo in July 2005.

    GCC hopes

    Arab countries such as Qatar have large aspirations going into the games. Fielding a record 25 athletes this games, Qatar believes it has enough talent to win medals.

    The Qatari Olympic Committee says it anticipates medals in track and field events, where it has fielded 15 athletes.

    Qatar, which currently holds two bronze medals, will also for the first time participate in taekwondo, fencing and javelin events.

    Khalil al-Jaber, the chief of Qatar's athletic mission to the games, told reporters that Qatar's greatest hopes lie in 100m runner Samuel Francis.

    Saudi Arabia, which has only one medal - won during the 2000 games in Sydney - says it has been concentrating its efforts on athletics where two of its sportsmen earned second and third place in the long jump in the Gold League held in Paris earlier this year.

    The Kingdom is also hoping for gold in equestrian events.

    Defending champion

    For the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ahmed al-Maktoum will defend his gold medal in the shooting event, which he won in Athens in 2004.

    Ramadan Yasser of Egypt prays in the boxing ring [GALLO/GETTY]
    Ahmed Nasser al-Rayes, the chairman of the UAE shooting federation, said that his country's athletes are capable of repeating and perhaps exceeding al-Maktoum's success in Athens.

    "Our participation this time is special and we are optimistic that it is a great chance for our athletes to earn medals," al-Rayes said.

    Oman is sending four athletes to Beijing, but will be making its own history because its delegation includes the country's first female Olympian.

    Seventeen-year-old Buthaina al-Yaquobi will appear in the track and field events.

    Oman's best chance at winning a medal will likely be Dad al-Boloshi, a shooter, and the only athlete in the delegation to directly qualify for the Olympics in the first rounds.

    Lack of planning

    But Othman al-Goraini, an Al Jazeera Sports analyst, is not so optimistic.

    "Arab competitors and teams work most of the time without proper [athletic] planning; even if there is planning it is only for a short period of time,” he said.

    "This is not enough to create special athletes."

    Al-Goraini said that it was "too late for the Beijing games" but admitted it would be an achievement of sorts if Arab delegations managed to repeat the relative success of winning 10 medals at the Athens games.

    He tipped Morocco to return with the most medals.

    "Runner Hasna Benhassi is capable of winning a silver medal in the 800m race," al-Goraini said.

    Benhassi won silver in the 800m event in Athens and came in eighth at the 2000 Sydney games.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    'It takes a village to kill a child': Uganda's hidden children

    'It takes a village to kill a child': Uganda's hidden children

    Faced with stigma and abuse, many children with disabilities are hidden indoors, with few options for specialised care.

    Medieval Arabic cookbooks: Reviving the taste of history

    Medieval Arabic cookbooks: Reviving the taste of history

    A growing number of cookbooks have been translated into English, helping bring old foods to new palates.

    India-China border row explained in seven maps

    India-China border row explained in seven maps

    Seven maps to help you understand the situation on the ground and what's at stake for nearly three billion people.