When Kuwaiti swimmer Faye Sultan finally got the call-up to compete in the Rio Olympics, the feeling was bittersweet.
Although the 21-year-old graduate of Williams College in the United States had endured pre-sunrise swims during brutal Massachusetts winters to appear in her second consecutive Olympics, the offer came with a big hitch. With Kuwait currently banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over alleged government interference – which Kuwait has countered with a $1bn lawsuit – Faye will participate as an independent athlete under the Olympic flag.
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As the names of more than 200 countries are called out during opening ceremonies on Friday, Faye will be grouped with other displaced athletes, including refugees from South Sudan and Syria, and a Russian pole vaulter granted amnesty from her country’s track-and-field sanctions.
Because the IOC does not allow participation by Kuwait of any kind, Sultan paid her own way to Rio from New York, where she was training for her 50m freestyle event, scheduled for August 12.
The Rio Olympics will be a marked contrast from her first opening ceremonies in London, when the 6ft-tall swimmer, dressed in a traditional thawb, struck a chord with proud Kuwaitis as cameras zoomed in on her beaming smile.
Although she was only 17 at the time and barely out of high school, the moment is permanently etched into Sultan’s memory.
“Those feelings at the last London Olympics are something, honestly, that I still cannot describe,” Sultan told Al Jazeera. “I was just feeling so much pride, and I’m not going to be able to do that again.
“I’m going to be wearing a blue [Olympic] uniform. I’m going to be part of a team that is just not from the same country that I am – which is still an honour, and I’m still happy to be able to go and everything, but … it‘s obviously very disheartening. You work so hard to represent your country, and it’s definitely a blow to not be able to walk [under the Kuwaiti flag].”
Kuwait was also suspended by the IOC before London 2012, but the ban was lifted two months before the Games.
Infighting among the country’s sports authorities led to a series of contentious laws passed between 2007 and 2015. Although those laws were repealed by parliament in June, according to a report by AFP they maintained the government’s right to dissolve sports clubs and federations – a sticking point for the IOC. Kuwait is also currently banned by football’s governing body, FIFA.
“I hope that Kuwait can turn something this bad into something good,” Sultan said, suggesting that the emirate should “put in place a necessary governing body to ensure that this doesn’t happen again”.
Neither the Kuwait Olympic Committee nor the Kuwait Swimming Authority responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
“It’s a tragedy that the institutions that Kuwait has invested in building cannot run independently when there is a struggle at the top tier,” said Alanoud al-Sharekh, a specialist in sociopolitical issues of the Gulf at the London Middle East Institute, and a Kuwaiti herself. “A lot of people are feeling this sense of disappointment, humiliation and embarrassment that things have gotten so out of hand.
feel like they have been abandoned.”]
“[The athletes] feel like they have been abandoned,” Sharekh added. “There is a vacuum, where the country should be backing them, or reaching out to them, or putting them on a pedestal. Athletes are heroes regardless of any petty issues that we are plagued with in Kuwait.”
Sultan’s frustration is palpable, more so because of the hurdles leading up to London 2012, when she became the first female swimmer to represent Kuwait at an Olympics.
She spent much of her time training in a pool designed for toddlers – “I’m a pretty tall girl, so it wasn’t ideal by any means,” she recalled – while stealing precious minutes in Olympic-sized pools starting at 5:15am, two hours before the men practised. Olympic-sized pools in Kuwait are generally found in the semi-professional athletic clubs, which are dominated by men. There are no women’s swim teams in those clubs.
“In Kuwait we have beautiful facilities; it’s just that for a girl they are so much harder to access,” Sultan lamented.
It was only six months before London that Sultan was granted permission to swim alongside her male counterparts and afforded a reasonable amount of time in a professional setting, she said.
In London, Sultan finished seventh in her heat with a time of 27.92 seconds, and did not qualify for the 50m finals. But after four years of rigorous NCAA training and two swimming world championships under her belt, she is eager to display her better form in Rio.
The idea is not just to challenge the heavily favoured Campbell sisters of Australia, but also to galvanize more women from the Gulf to get active. Eight Kuwaiti men also qualified for Rio, including Fehaid al-Deehani, the only medallist in Kuwait’s Olympic history – but Sultan’s only female teammate from Kuwait in 2012, 10m air rifle specialist Maryam Erzouqi, did not join her this time around.
“I really hoped that we would have more female participation in Kuwait, especially in this Olympics, but [that’s] another heartbreaking moment for me,” she said.
“The way I see it, is that I’m the prototype,” Sultan added. “I’m getting the ball rolling. The first of anything, you’re not necessarily going to be the best, but I’d like to show people the importance of sport and just how much it can give you.”