Sports in the Arab World: A Special Issue
Not many years ago, the average American sports fan thought sports started somewhere around South Bend and stopped just east of Yankee Stadium. And although they have since learned that the French don’t ski badly, that Russians play hockey and that Australians have discovered tennis, we think it still may come as a shock to many who read this issue of Aramco World to discover that these days they’re playing sports in the Middle East too.
Undoubtedly, some people will immediately pict bearded Bedouins hitting line drives to center field, throwing forward passes or sinking putts at St. Andrew's! But that, we think is because western minds are still so steeped in myths and stereotypes that the idea of the Arab as either sportsman or sports fan is something they’ve just never thought about before.
It is certainly true that the Anglo-Saxon obsession with "games" is relatively new to the area, and that Kuwait probably can manage without an astrodome for the moment. We are also prepared to admit that Saudi Arabia will not be a contender for football’s World’s Cup in the next year or so and that it may be just as long before an Arab quintet takes on the Celtics.
But as this issue suggests, along with the tremendous social, economic and educational progress in the Arab world in the last few years, there has also been impressive but generally unnoticed growth in both organized sport and weekend leisure activity in the Arab world. From Morocco to the Arabian Gulf, from the cool mountains of Lebanon to the torrid heartland of the Peninsula, boys—and girls—in towns and villages all over the Arab world are swapping sandals for sneakers and turning school yards and sand lots into fields and volleyball courts. In the cities even parents are playing games.
As one example, in Saudi Arabia, when Aramco photographer S. M. Amin caught the Saudi football player who appears on our cover, football—or for that matter, modern sport of any kind—was unheard of before the 1920’s. Today an active nationwide football league—with at least one sports club in nearly every town in the country—attracts fans by the thousands each weekend.
Elsewhere, the Arab sports scene reveals such surprises as Egyptian racing crews who have outstroked Cambridge, the existence of nearly a dozen ski shops in Beirut and a golf tournament in Morocco that prize money topping anything offered in Europe.
Climate, diet, and economics are among the factors which will determine if, how much and how fast sports in the Arab world continue to grow. But one thing is certain. Yesterday’s desert horseman and falconer are a very small part of the Arab sports picture today. More indicative, we think, is that several hundred Arab athletes, representing 12 Arab nations, will be going to Munich this September (71 from Egypt alone) will be competing in nearly every event in the 1972 Olympics.