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Volume 35, Number 5September/October 1984

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The Arabs and the Olympics

A Summary—Soccer, Saudis and Seoul

Written by Brian Clark and John Goodbody
Additional photographs by Brian Clark and David Luttrell

For Saudi Arabia, it seemed, the 1984 Olympics were just a warm-up for the 1988 games in Seoul. Though they won no medals - and were eliminated from the soccer competition earlier than expected - the Saudis played hard, lost gracefully, cheered wildly and looked forward to Korea with hope. As the Saudi soccer coach Khalil al-Zayani put it so well: "We'll be back - and we'll be better."

Everyone seemed to be thinking the same way. Despite the early setbacks in soccer, for example, the disproportionately large crowd of Saudi fans continued to roar with enthusiasm each time a Saudi player so much as touched the ball. And though the kingdom's hopes for victory were soon crushed, the fans continued to wave the green and white Saudi flags - to the rhythmic beat of a drum - cheered with enthusiasm and dismissed defeats with philosophic shrugs. And when it was over, one fan, still smiling widely, summed up the crowd's reaction: "Just watch us in Korea."

The chief disappointment, in fact, was the failure of American television to broadcast soccer games. Though soccer was played all across the United States - from Harvard University to Palo Alto, California and the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles - TV coverage was so scant that Joao Havelange, president of the International Football Federation entered an official complaint with the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

Since five of the 16 soccer teams at the Olympics were Arab teams, many Arab fans were upset by the lack of coverage, but otherwise Arabs at the Olympics were generally pleased. Some, like the Saudi soccer fans and players, were happy just because they had qualified for and competed in the games. Others - from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Morocco - were pleased because their own athletes did exceptionally well, or because many of the 600 athletes from 18 countries listed as Islamic countries won medals or at least exceeded expectations.

Of all the Islamic countries represented at the Los Angeles games, Morocco, of course, was the happiest. With two gold medals, (See pages 30 and 31), one of them the first ever won by an Arab woman, Morocco stole the show. But they were by no means alone. Pakistan won a gold medal in field hockey; Egypt and Syria won silver medals in judo and wrestling; Algeria and Turkey both won two bronze medals in boxing and Turkey another bronze in wrestling. Some of these countries also did well in basketball and weightlifting, and Saudi Arabia competed in five sports.

For most of the Arab fans, however, soccer was the game to watch - especially the Arab teams: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Iraq and Morocco.

Generally speaking, the Arab teams were a bit out of their league, but one team, Egypt, reached the quarter finals only to go down in defeat to Italy in a hard-fought match in which three Egyptians and an Italian were sidelined by referees and one player was suspended.

Despite that, Egypt recovered impressively at their Stanford University match at Palo Alto in which they crushed Costa Rica 4-1, only to collapse in their August 2 match with the United States.

In the final-eight competition, Egypt faced France, the eventual gold medalist and the team against which the Egyptians had managed a rugged two-hour scoreless tie during the Mediterranean Games in Casablanca last September. At Palo Alto the two teams nearly achieved the same result: after two hours the game went to penalty kicks.

Qatar, another Arab country with an Olympic soccer team, also started off brightly - holding mighty France to a 2-2 tie - and winning accolades from the French team manager, Henri Michel. "The Third World teams, including the Arabs, are getting much better," he said. "All teams are equal now, all have the same preparation. We'll be hearing from these teams in the future."

Later, however, at Harvard University across the continent in Massachusetts, Qatar's bright start was quickly dimmed by a 2-0 victory by Norway in a fiercely fought match that ended with 14 policemen escorting the players off the field.

Iraq also started well - with a draw against Canada and a lively game against Yugloslavia, one of Europe's better teams. The Iraqis, however, lost to Cameroon.

As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's team came to California with bright hopes and the backing of the whole kingdom. "We believe," said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, "that we have a very good chance for a medal, and the whole country is behind us."

That degree of confidence may have been premature, but it was not entirely unfounded. This spring, after all, the Saudi team stunned the world of football by beating a strong South Korean team 5-4 in the Asia-Oceanic Olympic Qualifying Rounds - and qualified for the Olympics.

With that victory, the Saudi team instantly achieved star-status - and triggered spontaneous celebrations of glee throughout the kingdom. Even the Royal Family showed its pleasure - with a' cascade of gifts to the players and a decision to publish a series of posh color advertisements in such magazines as Time, Life and Newsweek, the Sunday supplement Parade and newspapers from coast to coast, plus handsomely photographed nationwide televised spots.

Many people in the world of sports were stunned when the Saudi team began to beat teams like South Korea and New Zealand in the games at Singapore. Others, however, said the kingdom's strong showing was no aberration. In fact, they argued, improvements in football roughly parallel improvements in other areas. As the country advances as a whole, they said, so will its sports teams.

This is certainly possible. In 1976, the government's General Presidency for Youth Welfare decided to develop soccer in Saudi Arabia with the same intensity shown by other government agencies as they developed roads, communications, schools and universities and hospitals under a massive series of five year plans to industrialize and develop the kingdom. Initially, and wisely, the youth welfare group started by upgrading children's and teenage sports, but then, when the time was ripe, they brought in top soccer coaches and launched what has since become one of the best sports programs in the Middle East; by 1984 the kingdom was spending $30 million on sports.

As one result of this, Saudi soccer quietly established a toehold in the region and then, in 1982, startled the sports world when the Brazilian star Mario Zagalo, was brought in to coach the national soccer team, and Tele Santan came to coach the Jiddah al-Ahli Sports Club, one of the better teams in the kingdom. Then, last March, after a frustrating loss to Iraq in an Arabian Gulf tournament, Saudi Arabia replaced the national team coach with one of its own: Khalil al-Zayani, who had led his hometown club - al-Ittifaq of Dammam - to national and Gulf championships in years past. According to some observers it was al-Zayani's knowledge of Saudi psychology as well as his soccer skills that sparked Saudi wins over teams like New Zealand, Kuwait and South Korea in the Singapore showdown.

Those victories were exceptional. In 12 Olympic-trials games, the Saudis shut out their opponents five times and allowed only one goal in five other contests - surprising not only observers on the sports scene, but also themselves. As coach al-Zayani said, "Our boys did the impossible. I am incredibly happy."

But the Olympics still lay ahead and as the summer progressed, al-Zayani, to get ready for the team's debut at the Rose Bowl, took his team to Jubail on the Gulf Coast for two weeks, then to Portugal for intensive practice and training matches. Finally, along with Saudi Arabia's cyclists, archers, fencers and marksmen, the soccer players arrived in Los Angeles. Altogether there were 78 Saudi athletes, the largest delegation of Saudi sportsmen ever to attend the Olympics.

Although the soccer team quickly headed for the Dominguez Hills College football field south of Los Angeles to practice - and get used to L.A.'s famous smog - it was not all work. The athletes also got a chance to look around Los Angeles, tour the Universal Studios movie production lot and attend receptions and parties given by the Arab community of Los Angeles. As part of the Olympics Arts Festival - which gave each competing nation the opportunity to present shows and displays of its arts - the Saudis were able to hear their own favorite singer, Mohamed Abdu, the most popular singer in the kingdom.

Meanwhile, at the Saudi Information Center near the University of California at Los Angeles, Prince Turki ibn Sultan, one of the kingdom's delegation, in an interview with Aramco World, discussed the role of sports in Saudi Arabia. He said that Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of sports - hunting, with falcon and saluki, the desert greyhound, camel racing and horse racing - but that these days the emphasis is on modern sport. As a result, he said, the kingdom now has 154 football clubs, 132 track and field clubs, 132 volleyball clubs, 120 table tennis clubs 90 bicycling clubs, 69 handball clubs, 55 gymnastic clubs, 53 basketball clubs and 31 swimming programs.

Furthermore, he went on, the youth welfare presidency in charge of sports will build 26 new sports centers, 12 sports halls, three sports-medicine facilities and 15 new swimming pools under the third Five Year Plan. "Youth to a nation," said the prince, "is as springtime to the seasons. It is the ... barometer of a nation's progress."

At the Olympics, soccer, despite American disinterest in the game and media neglect, was one of the important crowd pleasers. Games were played right across the country - from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California - and attracted vast crowds; indeed, as the 16 teams fought their way through the preliminary rounds, quarterfinals and semifinals to the finals, they drew the largest turnouts ever recorded in the United States. And though the Saudis did not advance past the first rounds, they played well enough to win praise from some of their opponents.

Since Saudi Arabia's first match saw them pitted against powerful Brazil, the handwriting was on the wall almost immediately. Brazil dominated the play right from the start and although the Saudi eleven came on strong in the second half - to score its only goal of the night - Brazil won 3-1.

After the game, Majed Abdullah, who scored the Saudis' single goal on a penalty kick, acknowledged that Brazil played well and that Saudi Arabia should have taken the offensive. "Their man-to-man defense controlled us," he said, "and each time we tried a different tactic, they managed to cover us well. We tried to attack in the second half, but it was to no avail."

Despite the defeat, Majed Abdullah said, he was overwhelmed by the number of Saudi fans in the stands and welcomed their loud, vocal support. "It helped, and it really wasn't expected. I just wish our play as a team would have been better."

Coach al-Zayani was also disappointed, but not upset. "We are still young and inexperienced in play," he said. "Our players were nervous and felt the pressure. When they adjusted, things changed and we played at our level. We are learning from our mistakes." Brazil's coach, praising his Arab opponents, agreed. "We had a very creative game going, but we have a lot of respect for the Saudis. They did well."

In the second match - against Morocco - Saudi Arabia did even better, but could not connect on its goal shots. Morocco won the game 1-0 - a frustrating defeat for the Saudis who buzzed the goal continually and got off shot after shot without putting any of them in the net.

Again, however, they won praise from their opponents and refused to be discouraged. Jose Faria, the Moroccan coach, said the Saudis were "great," and that the game as a whole was played "on a European level." And Coach al-Zayani said again that it was a matter of experience. "Things might have been different if we had capitalized on our chances. But we are still gaining experience. Morocco played only well enough to win."

Commenting on the same game, one player said that he was pleased to play another Arab team - because it showed how the sport is on the rise in the Middle East. "Five of the 16 teams in the Olympics are from the Arab world," he said, "The sport has a great future in our countries."

By the third game of the preliminaries, of course, the virtually scoreless Saudis were feeling the frustration - especially as, in their last game, West Germany easily ran up a 4-0 lead in the first half and ended the game with a 6-0 triumph - and with Samir Abd al-Shakour, 30 minutes into the second half, ejected for a foul. Though the players later declined to comment on the game, al-Zayani, like the fans, looked resolutely to the future. "We're disappointed ... but we're still glad to have been able to come here. And if we didn't play as well as we would have liked, well, we learned a lot ... and World Cup possibilities have been greatly enhanced. Furthermore, we look forward to marching in the closing ceremonies ..."

As to future Olympics, Coach al-Zayani summed it up for all the Saudi athletes. "We'll be back . .. and we'll be better."

John Goodbody, a former sports writer for London's newspapers and UPI and author of two books on the Olympics, now free-lances for Compass, the Third World feature and news service. Brian Clark, a staff writer for the Modesto Bee in California, covered the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo for Aramco World Magazine.

The Aouita Express
Photographed by Sipa-Press

The most famous train in Morocco now is the Aouita Express. It runs from Casablanca to Rabat, and it's always on time - like the man that it's named for: Sa'id Aouita, who won Morocco's second gold medal in the Olympic games by winning the 5,000-meter event in 13 minutes 05:59 seconds, an Olympic record.

In recent years, running has become one of the glamor events at the Olympic games, possibly because so many people today are out running in the streets of New York, London, Paris and almost everywhere else. At the Los Angeles games, for example, the long awaited race between the famous Mary Decker of the United States and the equally famous barefoot champ from South Africa, Zola Budd, running for Britain, was one of the big stories of the Olympics even before their now celebrated - and heartbreaking - collision.

Sa'id Aouita may not be in the Decker-Budd class with respect to news coverage, but, by winning the 5,000 meters, the 24-year-old runner from Fez became a contender for the title of the fastest man in the world - now held by Briton David Moorcroft with a time of 13 minutes, 00:41 seconds.

Aouita's Olympic race was a thriller. Though he had racked up a record-breaking time of 13 minutes 04:78 seconds earlier this year, Sa'id, obviously, had to keep a wary eye on Moorcroft, and also on Portuguese runner Antonio Leitao, who, eventually, placed third. For a moment or two, Markus Ryffel of Switzerland also posed a threat when he came flying out of the pack in the final 250 meters. But then, in the last 100 meters, Sa'id passed everyone with ease and came down to the finish smiling and waving.

With one gold medal in the bag already (See Page 31), Sa'id's victory did wonderful things for the morale of Morocco particularly and Arabs generally. As Sa'id said himself in a telephone talk with Morocco's King Hassan II: "I am dedicating the victory to the African continent, the Arabian countries and especially to my own country..."

King Hassan, meanwhile, had done a bit of dedicating too. Just before the Olympics began, he had renamed the Casablanca-Rabat express train the Aouita Express, a signal honor for a young man who was totally unknown five years before when his coach, Aziz Daouda, first noticed him in a national cross-country high school race and instantly decided he was a winner.

"He had the quality of people who go all the way," Coach Daouda told an Aramco World reporter in Los Angeles. "Most runners are afraid of exhausting themselves, but he had an easy stride and was relaxed when running. I could see he had something special."

By 1981, Sa'id was on his way - he had won the World Student Games 1,500-meter title-and though sidelined in 1982 he came in third in the 1,500-meter race in 1983. In June, in Italy, he switched to the 5,000-meters event, but when he got to Los Angeles he still hadn't decided whether to run the 5,000 meters or the 1,500, the event in which he had won a bronze medal in Helsinki in 1983. Then he hurt his leg and decided that the 5,000 meters would be best. As a result, observers now think Sa'id might be the first athlete to run that event in less than 13 minutes - and so does Sa'id. "I know I can go below 13 minutes," he said.

Combat Medals
Written by John Goodbody
Photographed by Anp Photo

To nearly everyone's surprise, four Arab competitors closed the 1984 Olympic games by winning a clutch of medals in combat sports traditionally dominated by other countries: judo, wrestling and boxing.

One of the four, Muhammad Rashwan, a burly 28-year-old Egyptian businessman, walked off with a silver medal in judo, a sport usually controlled by the nation that invented it: Japan. In impressive early bouts, Muhammad quickly disposed of Bechir Kiiari of Tunisia, Mihai Cioc of Rumania and, finally, China's Xu Guoging, a relative newcomer to judo, but so strong that he had broken the backs of two sparring partners a year before.

Then, however, he came up against Japan's formidable Yasuhiro Yamashita - unbeaten in 198 contests since 1977 and winner of four world titles and eight all-japan titles. Though he started fast and hard - with a quick, aggressive attack - Muhammad was soon turned and held, for the required 30 seconds, by the extraordinary Yamashita. Muhammad's silver medal, nevertheless, was impressive. It was the first ever won by an Arab in Olympic judo tournaments.

In free-style wrestling, another Arab, Joseph Atiyeh, won a silver medal for Syria - the country's first - in the 100-kilo class (220 pounds) - by pinning Rumania's Vasile Pascasu in 4 minutes and 42 seconds. A student at Louisiana State University, Atiyeh then faced Lou Banach representing the United States and was pinned himself in one minute and one second.

Two Algerian boxers picked up bronze medals in boxing. Light-heavyweight Mustapha Moussa, who had outpointed Malawi's Drake Thadzi, nearly lost a decision to Anthony Wilson of Great Britain, but was given the match when the Jury of Appeals reversed the 3-2 decision. He then went on to face Anton Josipovic of Yugoslavia, however, and was so decisively defeated - on points - that he was taken to the hospital, though released soon after.

The other Algerian, middleweight Muhammad Zaoui, stopped Lesotho's Tsill Monne and, on a jury-reversed decision, beat Zambia's Moses Mwaba before coming up against American Virgil Hill, one of the 12-man American powerhouse, and losing.

Athletes from another Islamic country also picked up combat medals. Turgut Aykac and Eyup Can of Turkey won bronze medals for featherweight and flyweight boxing and Ayhan Taskin, also of Turkey, won a bronze for wrestling.

Like other such victories, however, the combat sports were seen by most Arabs as just a reconnaissance. "Watch us in Korea," said one man. "Then you can make a judgment. As one famous American said, 'We have just begun to fight.'"

A Gold For Nawal
Written by John Goodbody
Photographed by Sipa-Press

At the Los Angeles coliseum last month, Morocco's tiny, 22-year-old Nawal El Moutawakil became the first Arab woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal - with a startling victory over favored runners from Sweden, Rumania and the United States in the 400-meter hurdles. Her time of 54:61 seconds set an Olympic record and was the 10th fastest time in hurdles history.

For Morocco as well as Nawal, it was an exciting triumph; it was the country's first gold medal and its second Olympic medal of any sort since Rhadi ben Abdesselem took a silver in Rome's 1960 marathon. But even the Americans, whose patriotic cheering had nettled many foreign observers during the games, came to their feet when the red and green Moroccan flag flapped to the top of the flagpole and Nawal strode tearfully to the podium beneath the Olympic flame to claim her medal.

Two hours later, as officials put through a telephone call to King Hassan II in Rabat, Nawal was still in tears - tears of gratitude to her late father who had encouraged her to become an athlete. "A gold medal for an Arab woman is something else again," she said, "but my father wanted me to become a champion - first in my club, then in my country, then in Africa and finally in the world. He would be very happy for me now."

Everyone else certainly was. Abdelouahed ben Hassan Benjelloun, Morocco's International Olympic Committee member, told Aramco World that Nawal's victory "shows that with serious training victory is possible by a competitor from any country." And Abdellatif Semlali, Morocco's minister of sports, said that although Nawal is the outstanding representative of female athletes in Morocco, she is not unusual because she is a girl. "She is unusual because of her ability."

Praise and pleasure at Nawal's victory came from every quarter. American sports writers, not normally given to excessive sentiment, went all out for her, and Charles Palmer, general secretary of the General Assembly of International Sports Federations, said "it is particularly gratifying to see the development of sport in any Third World country." He also expressed the hope that all nations would encourage women to compete in sports.

In addition, the Algemene Bank Maroko named its Casablanca branch the Nawal El Moutawakil bank.

Nawal was by no means the only athlete from North Africa to compete in the games. Another Moroccan, Fawzi Lahbi, ran extremely well against fierce competition in the 800 meters - as did The Sudan's Omar Khalifa. But unlike, for example, America's Carl Lewis, who was expected to win everything in sight, Nawal El Moutawakil's victory was totally unexpected. For one thing, she is only 1.60 meters tall (five feet, two inches) and only weighs 49 kilos (a shade over 100 pounds) and girls that size aren't expected to beat such long-legged champions as Sweden's Louise Skoglund, America's Judi Brown or Rumania's Christina Cojocaru.

Such observers forgot that Nawal, a physical education major at Iowa State University, was not new to running. She had started with cross country, switched to sprinting and the 400 meters before trying the hurdles. They forgot too that in 1983 she was a semi-finalist in the world championships, and that in 1984 she had become the African champion and the American Collegiate champion.

At the starting gun, Nawal, though dwarfed by her western rivals, soon showed her extraordinary ability. In a supremely confident race, she led from start to finish over the 10 flights round a stadium packed with the 89,000 fans who would soon applaud her - and Morocco's - victory.

I hope they win everybody…
Written and photographed by Brian Clark
Additional photographs by David Luttrell

During the Olympic games, Saudi Arab soccer stars met, and swapped T-shirts with, some 30 American youngsters, from the Los Angeles area's American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) in one example of what a Saudi prince said was the importance of Saudi Arabia's presence at the games: "to present a positive image of Saudi Arabia."

Prince Turki ibn Sultan, who played soccer when he was growing up, told an Aramco World writer that it would have been nice if Saudi Arabia had won a medal or two, but that creating a positive image in America is better.

As part of an effort to do that, the Saudi Arab government, proud of its athletes, printed huge full-page to four-page full-color advertisements in American magazines and newspapers, and presented impressive nationwide television spots repeatedly throughout the games. The point, according to Wendy Fox of the Boston Globe, was to express the fact that "the Saudis are button-popping proud" to be at the Olympics - but also to call attention to the kingdom's economic and educational progress and its commitment to peace.

At their meeting with the AYSO kids, ranging in age from five to 13, the Saudi soccer players did their bit by kicking the ball around with the American youngsters. And Majed Abdullah, known in Middle East soccer circles' as the "Pele of the desert," urged them to learn the basics, play often, but only for the love of the game. "If you push too much," he said, "you can take away the joy of the game."

For the AYSO boys, who are members of a 300,000-strong organization in the U.S., coming to the tightly guarded Olympic Village, getting free tickets to both Saudi games in the Rose Bowl - as well as Saudi T-shirts and hats - added up to an unforgettable thrill. This was especially true for five-year-old Jason Vargas of Bellflower, California who was photographed with the players. "What a way to begin soccer," said Jason's mother. "He'll be addicted to the sport for sure, now."

Jason was just as enthusiastic. "Wow, they're neat guys. I hope they win everybody."

This article appeared on pages 26-37 of the September/October 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1984 images.