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1972Sports in the Arab World

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Games Arabs Play

Written by Gerry Loughran
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

The Arab appetite for sport is voracious and the menu is titillating. Increasingly, however, the tariff is too high.

In a wide-ranging survey of the status of sport in the Arab world, I met several administrators who talked eloquently and eagerly of their specialty, only to add sadly: "Of course, it's a rich man's sport now." Skiing, sailing, shooting, riding and motor rallying all come within this category.

But the broader-based sports, aided by increasing international contacts, television, more leisure, a relatively more stable political situation and—particularly in Lebanon—an unrivaled climate, are going from strength to strength.

Sport is as old as the Middle East. Egyptian wall carvings depict wrestling scenes in Pharaonic times. For centuries Arab shaikhs have flown hawks in desert skies and Bedouin tribesmen galloped their Arab steeds across the dunes. Camel races are still regularly held in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In the Lebanese mountains, village youths traditionally organized weight-lifting contests, often using the old kibbeh stone in which their mothers pounded meat and cracked wheat and which can weigh upwards of 100 pounds. Nowadays too, the colonial heritage is evident in the popularity of wrestling, much encouraged by the Ottoman Turks, and preeminently association football (what Americans call soccer), the game the British gave to the countries they once ruled.

Egypt has long been the sports leader of the Arab world and throughout the area soccer is incontestably the top sport. An Egyptian living in Beirut, asked to name the three most popular sports in his home country, replied, "Football, football and football." They even have women's teams in Cairo, something inconceivable in the rest of the region.

It was largely at the time of World War I, when Britain and France carved up the Arab world between them following defeat of the Turks, that sport went on a regularized basis. British Tommies from cobbled back lanes and colonial civil servants from the playing fields of Eton brought their passion for organized games to Transjordan, Palestine and Iraq. French troops and foreign residents in Lebanon and Syria infected other Arab youths with their enthusiasm. By 1921 the Cairo-based Football Federation was Egyptianized and clubs burgeoned throughout the country. Today fans are counted in millions. Gates range from a few thousand spectators at the smallest clubs to 120,000 at the Nasser Stadium in Cairo—a greater capacity than that of London's famed Wembley Stadium.

But though today Egypt, with its 34-million strong population, is unrivaled in the Arab world in the quality and number of its sportsmen, it was in tiny Lebanon that sport was first really organized. The main influence was the American University of Beirut, then known as the Syrian Protestant College. Dr. Abdel Sattar Trabulsi, who has been Director of Athletics at AUB for the past 45 years, says: "Organized sports started when AUB started in 1866. First there was track and field, then came football, tennis and swimming."

Today, including freshmen, for whom sports are required, about 2,000 of the 3,500 students at AUB take an active part in games—mainly football, swimming and track. Dr. Trabulsi heads a staff of about 50 coaches and instructors, all of them part-time.

Says Dr. Trabulsi: "The missionary schools picked up the competitive idea and held contests with us. Crews from foreign ships in Beirut harbor were always on the lookout for games and the occupying troops also joined in. By the early 1940's we in Lebanon were well away. In the late 40's the country started organizing for the Olympics and it has been represented in every Olympiad since London in 1948."

Mr. Nassif Majdalani, known as "the father" of sport in Lebanon," recalls that in 1930 there were only five sports clubs in the whole of the country. Now there are about 1,000 clubs and 22 federations. Just about every conceivable sport is played—football, volleyball, basketball, swimming, tennis, wrestling, weight lifting, fencing, boxing, horseback riding, horse racing, motor rallying, skiing, water skiing, surfing, skeet shooting, bird shooting, archery, water polo, track and field, gymnastics, table tennis, bicycling, sailing, cross-country running, scuba diving, judo, karate, yoga, spelunking, bowling, fishing, golf and squash.

The major sports that are not played—at least on any scale by Arabs—are baseball, American football and cricket. "They're too esoteric," says Mr. Majdalani. "They just never caught on."

Mr. Majdalani, editor of the 41-year-old Al-Hayat al-Riyadiyah (Sports Life) newspaper and a sports announcer on Radio Lebanon for the past 30 years, reckons that there could not have been many more than a hundred dedicated non-student sportsmen in Lebanon in 1930. Today officials put the total of regular and casual gamesmen in the country at about 200,000.

Other Arab countries are equally keen but—except for Egypt—have not reached any sophisticated level of organization as yet. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Arabian Gulf states name football as their number one sport, with basketball and volleyball second and third, weight lifting close behind and swimming and hunting, the "games of the people." The latest arrival in the region is squash. There are two clubs in Lebanon and the game is becoming increasingly popular in Kuwait.

Boxing, following what is apparently a worldwide trend, is being overtaken in popularity by judo and karate—there are classes in the former at AUB—though this winter's visit of Muhammed Ali to several Arab states may well have given the noble art a boost. Saudi Arabia's Director General of Youth Welfare, Prince Faysal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, told newsmen after the ex-world champion's pilgrimage to Mecca: "Boxing is an art, and we shall, God willing, study its introduction to the kingdom." If the studies prove positive, it will be the first body-contact sport in the peninsular area.

In terms of sporting success, Egypt leads the Arab world. It has the area's only professional tennis player—Ismail el-Shafei, who has signed a guaranteed annual $25,000 contract with World Championship Tennis—and several amateur players of international class. Its basketball team recently came in runner up in the all-African championships after wins in 1962, 1964 and 1970 and, with winner Senegal, will represent Africa at Munich. Recently too, Egyptian Ali Abou Greisha was chosen by 16,000 readers of the magazine Jeune Afrique as Africa's outstanding 1971 footballer. Egypt's marksmen have won numerous shooting contests and the marshes near Alexandria are famous for their duck shooting. Ahmad Gunain of Egypt is a former world champion gymnast. Its long-distance swimmers are legend and its oarsmen are now staking a claim to world attention.

Lebanon probably comes next in the league with such outstanding rifle shots as Maurice Tabet, Tony Saadeh, Col. Emile Nasar and ex-President Camille Chamoun, young swimming prospects like Annie Mugrditchian and Bruno Bassoul, and weight lifter Mohammed Taraboulsi, who set two junior middleweight world records in Columbus, Ohio, last year.

There is nothing like a hero to encourage sport, and in Jordan King Hussein has clearly set the pace by his prowess at the wheel of a sports car or go-kart, piloting a jet or on water skis in Aqaba. In Lebanon, the diminutive, 36-year-old monarch also gave a fillip to the ailing sport of motoring before 1958 when he took part in a hair-raising hill climb event there.

Today, even though 53 cars took part in 1971's grueling Cedars Rally many observers fear that cash considerations and organizational difficulties have put auto sports into a tailskid. According to Khairallah Khairallah, motoring correspondent for An-Nahar newspaper, rallying is beyond the reach of most Lebanese. "For success you need a good car, a kit (for souping up models, the cost being anything up to $l,000-plus) and time to practice, so you have to be pretty well off." He suggested that the establishment of a racing circuit—there is one in Israel—might do much to democratize the sport.

Indeed it is in the financial area that much Arab sport seems to be facing its most serious challenge.

Mr. Henri Possbic, sports editor of Beirut's Le Soir newspaper, is among the most pessimistic. "Sports in the Arab world needs the help of governments," he says. "Young people are trained at school but they tend to fall away afterwards because there is not the necessary encouragement. We need better facilities, more money, paid coaches, an end to often serious rivalry among sporting factions. We need young blood in and the old guard out."

Lebanese officials were unavailable for interviews on the question of government aid to sport, but Mr. Possbic says the Directorate General of Youth and Sports hands out yearly grants to sports clubs ranging from a couple of hundred to some 3,000 Lebanese pounds (roughly $1,000). "The budget request this year was 1.5 million pounds but only 60,000 pounds was granted," he adds. Given the economic difficulties facing many governments in the area, including Lebanon, this may be generous enough, but it seems clear that sporting activities in a number of fields are atrophying through lack of cash transfusions.

Col. Nasar, Beirut's fire chief and a pioneer marksman, explains the economics of shooting today: "Since 1964, when Lebanon won third place in the world skeet-shooting championships, gun and cartridge prices have gone up about 50 percent. A good gun today—a Browning FN perhaps—costs $1,000 locally. One hundred cartridges used to be $8. Now they are $15. The cost for training alone works out to a figure which I simply can't afford, so I have given up competitive shooting. It's a rich man's sport now," he adds. These prices may not sound exorbitant according to a European or American standard of living, but they are in a developing country where average per capita income is still estimated at considerably less than $1,000 per year. Inevitably, then, one result is that Lebanon is weaker now in both skeet and trap shooting.

Which is a pity because the nation has probably done better at shooting than at any other sport. In 1953—at its first attempt—the national team came second in the pan-Arab competition and in the same year won the European Championship at San Sebastian, Spain. Diplomat turned businessman Maurice Tabet won the individual championship with a score of 197 out of 200. In 1957 Lebanon and Tabet repeated their European successes in France and Tabet also won the individual prize at the West German national championships.

The 1958 civil war interrupted this run of success. "Instead of shooting clay pigeons we were shooting at each other," Col. Nasar quips today. But Lebanon was shortly at peace again and in 1962 hosted the European championships, entertaining 225 competitors—including three barons and five counts—from 18 nations. Indeed, shooting seems to be in the Lebanese blood. "Weak as we are now, there are still 80 to 100 good clay pigeon shooters," according to the colonel. And hunting is a way of life. "About 96,000 people hunt with permits—and 60,000 without," he said, not mentioning that the game is mostly in the sparrow—and songbird—class. Tabet, long one of the finest marksmen in the world, no longer shoots competitively, but Col. Nasar predicts that Tony Saadeh will be among the first seven in the forthcoming Munich Olympics.

Another sport for which Lebanese need a capacious pocket these days is riding, though again rates may seem cheap to U.S. readers. Hire of a horse is about $2.00 an hour, and lessons are $1 per half-hour. But if you want your own mount, it will cost anything from $125 to $325 and about $60 a month for stable rent, food and tips.

Mr. Possbic gave examples of the high cost of sport. "My son is interested in judo and skiing. Judo costs him $8 per month and skiing $18 a month. On top of that he needs equipment, clothing, transport and pocket money."

Equipment and clothing are the top items for skiers. Besides skis, poles, boots and bindings you need gloves, goggles, pants, sweaters and hats. When you have all this you can ski across country for nothing, but downhill racing means $3 a day for use of the lift. Instruction comes at about $4 an hour.

Dr. Emile Riachi, president of the Lebanese Ski Federation, believes the area's most exciting ski potential will remain undeveloped until there is greater investment in facilities and financial backing for young ski prospects. In conjunction with Lebanon's Directorate General for Youth and Sports, the federation now offers free instruction and equipment to a few of the most promising children, but Dr. Riachi believes that only cash injections sufficient to relieve good native skiers (especially mountain village boys) of all financial commitments will ever result in skiers of real international repute. Dr. Riachi also complains that many of Lebanon's finest slopes are still inaccessible. "If the resorts were equipped with interconnecting lifts, the variety and potential of the sport would blossom enormously."

All these problems aside, the skiing boom of recent years has been tremendous. "It's unimaginable," he says. "Numbers are doubling, tripling" (Aramco World, January-February, 1966). Three decades ago, skiing was confined to a few foreigners. Today an estimated 35,000 take an active part in the sport. There are 20 ski clubs, six major skiing areas with 14 lifts and an as yet untapped potential on the superb northern slope of lofty Mount Hermon.

There is an annual national championship and an international ski week. Every April about 20 to 25 young athletes take part in a same-day skiing/water skiing contest. Lebanon sent skier Joseph Keyrouz as a token one-man team to this year's Winter Olympics at Sapporo, Japan, more to show the flag than in expectation of winning any medals.

High up in the sports popularity league is tennis. Lebanon alone has an estimated 1,350 regular players and 14 clubs are affiliated to the national Tennis Federation—which means they must have at least four courts. Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are all full members of the International Lawn Tennis Federation and Iraq, Syria and Kuwait are non-voting associate members. Characteristically, Egypt is the strongest Arab nation. Besides pro el-Shafei it has produced outstanding amateurs such as Ali Daoudi and Abdel Ghani Hassanein.

Says Mr. Emile Yazbeck, secretary-general of the Lebanese federation: "Tennis is becoming increasingly popular and we are campaigning for it to be taught more widely in schools."

Lebanon boasts the Broumana invitation tournament, held in the mountains each summer, and there is also a yearly international championship in Beirut. Virtually all the top world stars of recent years have played in Lebanon, including Newcombe, Stolle, Emerson, Richardson, Hoad and Britain's Ann Jones. The champions of Canada, Brazil, Greece and France have appeared at the international championships. But an open tournament is out of the question for now. Mr. Yazbeck estimates the federation would have to find some $15,000 for prize money alone and it just hasn't got that sort of cash. "We get some assistance from the government," he says. "They try to help but it's not enough."

Nevertheless, international contacts are encouraged. Lebanon is scheduled to play Morocco in the Davis Cup and the federation is planning to send some of its best youngsters on a tour of the European circuit this summer. Several young Lebanese have appeared at Junior Wimbledon, including Richard Haddad and Kerim Fawwaz, who beat Egypt's el-Shafei on one occasion and was considered the nation's best prospect. Today, however, he is a doctor in the United States.

For the non-international players, luckily, tennis does not rank as one of the pricey sports. Club membership averages $30 a year and allows free access to courts. Beyond that you need little more than a racquet. Lebanon's current champion, Khodr Issa, started out as a ball boy.

Another attraction of the game is that it is not restricted to youngsters. Mr. Yazbeck, who gave up football when he received a leg injury many years ago, is on the courts three times a week. As with many other sports in the area, tennis was played under the French mandate but it only really started with the growth of AUB.

Another growing sport in Lebanon is gymnastics. Mr. Hajj Adnan Makki, secretary-general of the Gymnastics Federation, a massively built ex-boxer, ex-weight lifter and present tennis player, says there are 17 gymnastic clubs in the country, and though the sport is 10 years old here, it has only really developed in the past three years. Egypt, however, has had long experience in gymnastics and there are also clubs in Syria and Kuwait. American teams have come to the area on demonstration tours twice, and last year a Soviet team visited Lebanon and gave a public display at—of all places—the gymnasium of the American Community School.

A closely allied sport is crosscountry running. More than 1,000 competitors troop en masse across the hills at Jamhour in an annual schools event. Last year, winner Nabil Choueiry finished the long-distance run with a 100-yard sprint that made LOrient's sports writer gasp, "Magnifique!" and edged out second-place student Rabih Faddoul by a hair-thin 5/10 of a second.

As in France, long-distance bicycle racing is a popular Lebanese event, though the rugged central mountain chain limits available courses. In 1971 Setrak Khayat won the 70-mile Bekaa Valley circuit and Tarek Abou-Zahab took the Lebanese championship, which was fought out along a 32-mile strip of coastal highway. Long-distance swimming also has its enthusiasts. There is a traditional Christmas Day swim along Beirut's shoreline which usually tempts a dozen or so intrepid souls into the less-than-balmy Mediterranean. Another such event is the 11-mile Jounieh Bay-to-Beirut swim.

Swimming, perhaps because miles of sunny beach have made it so generally popular, is one sport in which complaints of the unavailability of good coaching often arise. Mr. Possbit gives the example of Pierre Calland, son of Lebanese and French parents. "He was a great swimming prospect but his father had to take him to Paris for training because none was available here. Now he has broken 56 seconds for the 100-meter freestyle but he can't swim under the Lebanese flag." Another fine young swimmer is Bruno Bassoul. "He has to be trained by his parents and he goes to France for two or three weeks at a time, but that is no way to make champions," Mr. Possbic comments. Still, it is a measure of the increasing enthusiasm and dedication among competitive swimmers that in the first three days of the 1971 scholastic competitions boys and girls toppled 18 Lebanese records.

Sailing and water skiing are other sports patronized mainly by the well-off. There are three yacht clubs in Lebanon but probably only about 80 persons mess about in boats on a regular basis. A luxurious new harbor and water sports complex was recently completed in Jounieh Bay, however, and is managed by Lebanon's active Automobile and Touring Club. The world sailing championships in the Fireball class were held in St. George's Bay last October. In water skiing Simon Khoury took the European championship a number of times back in the 1950's and in 1967 attractive Cathy Carayan, then only 16, captured the European junior water ski jumping championship for Lebanon with a leap of 22 meters 10.

AUB's Dr. Trabulsi is more sanguine than many about the future of sport in the Arab world despite the cash-enforced elitism of many activities. "There have always been exclusive sports and popular sports, but generally they democratize," he says. "In the United States in the 1930's it was difficult to get a game of golf. Now you can play almost anywhere. In Lebanon tennis used to be an elite sport. Now everyone plays. Governments are trying their best to help and though we feel we deserve more money, sending teams to Olympics and on international tours is an expensive business." Dr. Trabulsi concedes that "organized activity in sports stops for most people after school unless they join a club. But many people here go hunting and today most of Lebanon swims." He compares the situation in Lebanon unfavorably to Egypt, however, where there are numerous playing fields, facilities and advisers. "There is certainly room for more government aid to clubs to encourage youngsters to keep up their specialty," he says.

Kuwait, most sports administrators agree, is probably the most generous Arab government in the sports arena. There are at least 10 major football clubs heavily backed by the government, and a topflight stadium with floodlighting for night matches. Children get free uniforms and shoes. Each government school has a swimming pool. Basketball, volleyball and squash are all encouraged. Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia recently established an Athletic Training Institute with three-year courses of instruction. Syria contributes indirectly to the football fever by pressing that sport ahead in its army. The Egyptian Government gives cash aid to sports organizations on an annual basis through the Supreme Council for Sports whose chairman has ministerial rank. Sporting bodies in the provinces also get financial assistance from the governorates, but no figures are available. Football clubs in Egypt, however, do not get government aid because their resources are healthy from receipts at games. Eighty-five percent of a gate goes to the home club and the rest is divided between the national federation and the district soccer body.

Professionalism scarcely exists in Arab sport. Wrestlers do receive fees for their appearances, though many sportsmen prefer to call this entertainment. There are no full-time footballers but individuals may get appearance money of about $50. The cash take from Lebanese games is split up for care of the pitch, the federation, and expenses for visitors and some players. Mr. Possbic quoted one team chief as saying his team cost about $2,000 a month to run, and clearly it is in football that the major money resides.

Inevitably, perhaps, there are regular clashes on the field and fighting in the stands. Sports chiefs attribute this partly to the fiery Mediterranean temperament, partly to the worldwide trend toward violent play, and partly to plain tension in crucial games.

The Egyptian Football Federation recently suspended all official and friendly matches throughout the country following rioting at a match between the Cairo clubs, National and Zamalek. Spectators invaded the pitch after a disputed penalty. Stones and bottles were thrown and many people were injured. Some political commentators managed to see the riot as a reflection of political discontent stemming from Egypt's current uneasy no-war-no-peace situation. But less imaginative observers consider it was the natural reaction of a volatile people for whom football is almost a religion. Soccer had been cut off in Egypt following the 1967 war and resumed only two months before the riot. Spectators were football-starved. And Mr. Majdalani comments: "Trouble on the field stems from sheer excitement. English teams have incidents every week, after all."

Dr. Trabulsi agrees. "Arabs are much like any other sportsmen," he says. "They want to win and tension rises to a high level in the big games." Mr. Possbic adds: "Lebanon is small so the violence looks big."

Health experts believe there is a connection between Arab eating habits and sporting. activity—or lack of it. A Beirut doctor who specializes in nutrition told me: "We have an obesity problem among Arabs. We eat rather too much of the wrong sort of food and, frankly, we can be a bit lazy. Look at the middle-aged people you see on the beach, for example. They swim a bit and maybe play paddle tennis, but they also spend a lot of time sunbathing. All this eating produces not muscle—though certainly wrestling and weight lifting are local strongpoints—but flabbiness."

The doctor suggests that if there is any sport for which Arabs have a natural flair it probably is horsemanship. "There seems to be a hereditary ability to ride well," he says, but he is not prepared to concede that environmental factors always decide the sort of games people play. "Look at the coastline we have," he explains. "We should be a nation of champion swimmers, but this doesn't necessarily follow." In fairness to Arab athletes, however, he adds that in the desert areas it is perhaps natural that people should tend to be less active than in a more bracing climate.

Mr. Majdalani is among the greatest protagonists of the "sport as an improver" school. "Fifteen thousand people will turn out to watch 22 footballers—fine, but we don't really want a group of heroes for other people to watch. Sport is a method of education, not a circus. We want to turn the Arab countries into nations of players, not watchers."

He is optimistic that the ideal is being achieved. Last year in Baghdad, for example, the Pan-Arab Scholastic Games were held for the fourth time. Events included football, volleyball, athletics, swimming, gymnastics and Ping-Pong. There are also efforts to organize general pan-Arab games. "The future looks good," Majdalani feels. "Interest is going up. Schools are engaging in athletic pursuits. Television is showing us football as it should be played. There are now institutes of sport in all the Arab countries and in Lebanon two schools specialize in sports graduates.

"With this sort of background, we are on the right track."

Gerry Loughran, who has covered Africa and the Middle East for UPI, describes himself as transfixed by a passion for football, which he once playedalong with cricket and tenniswith more enthusiasm than skill. Although he once won a medal for coming in second in the sack race, today he is an active participant only in darts and snookers and says he "likes to float gently on the surface of the Mediterranean and other warm seas."

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the Sports in the Arab World print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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