Athletic apathy

The mayor of Rio de Janeiro Eduardo Paes holds the Olympic flag next to the mayor of London Boris Johnson (L) and president of the IOC Jacques Rogge at the Olympic stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games in London on August 12, 2012. Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AFP PHOTO / ADRIAN DENNIS)

Arab Olympians, from a region of 400 million people, came home from London with 12 medals, two of them golds. Jamaicans, from a country of under 3 million people, also came home with 12, including four golds.

Looking at this figure it is immediately clear there is something wrong, as a region with a combined economy larger than any single country in the world, Arab countries took home the same number as medals as Jamaica, not one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

It is especially perturbing in light of the age of citizens in the region today, with young people representing 65 percent of the total population.

To have any hope of overcoming this regional medal deficit, it is essential to understand why it exists. The lack of a culture which nurtures sports, the lack of sufficient investment in resources, amenities and education, health and, sadly, corruption are all causal factors.

While many millions across the region follow sport passionately, almost obsessively, not as many are actively engaged in participating in sport. For those in power, the recreation is simply not on the agenda as carrying any real weight, and this has a trickledown effect.

Aptitude in sport must be nurtured at a young age, with the subject given attention in schools. Individuals and institutions capable of recognizing outstanding talent need to encourage success at a higher level.

Instead there is a situation where many schools are dropping the subject entirely – whether because of a lack of resources or a lack of interest – and “sport,” especially with regard to female participants, becomes a bad word. This attitude also leads to the adoption of an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle at a time when obesity is a growing problem.

If world headlines are any measure, this region’s greatest success at London 2012 was sending women athletes to the games, despite the attempts by some to scupper their journey, citing concerns over acceptable dress codes for female Olympians.

Nations are judged on their respect for human rights, their contributions to science, literature and sports. It is time for the Arab region to reflect on all of these. In terms of sport, widespread encouragement is needed, from schools, politicians, policy-makers and at home.

There is no shame in competing and losing. But participation in such international events should be effective, and it must be an exercise deemed worthy, and honorable.

Developing a national environment which supports sports and breaks records is not easy, and it is a long path. But it is a worthwhile one. The young Arab generations are hopefully more enthusiastic about this challenge than their predecessors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2012, on page 7.




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