The important thing in the Olympic Games," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin - the man mainly responsible for reviving them - "is not to win, but to take part." And although this ideal was somewhat overshadowed at the Seoul Games last fall by fierce competition, national pride and even scandal, it still holds true for some.
"As wonderful as it is to win a medal," said Abdullah al-Deini, chief of mission for the Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee in Seoul, "what we really came here for was to participate."
Arab athletes, in fact, competed in every one of the diverse Olympic events. And although the 1988 summer Olympics were the most competitive ever, with some 9500 athletes vying for about 200 medals, they did score some successes. As in 1984, it was Morocco that had the best results. In addition to Morocco's two track medals (See Aramco World, November-December 1988), Morocco's Abdel Achik took a bronze in the boxing's 57-kilogram (125-pound) division. Achik nearly made it into the gold-medal round, but broke a small bone in his hand in a semi-final fight with Italy's Giovanni Parisi, who went on to take the gold medal.
Other Middle Eastern medal winners included Bahrain's Adel Darraj, who took a bronze in the taekwondo flyweight division; Jordan's Samer Kamal, who tied for bronze in the taekwondo featherweight, and Egypt's Hussein Amar, who brought home the taekwondo middleweight division silver medal.
A strong Turkish showing resulted in a total of four medals, with three coming in taekwondo. Perhaps the brightest Middle-Eastern star was Turkey's 59-kilogram (130-pound) Nairn Süleymanoğlu, who set six world weight-lifting records and won a gold medal for his adopted country. Known as "the pocket Hercules," he defected from Bulgaria more than two years ago after he was forced to adopt a Christian name by government decree. (See box, page 38.)
The Lebanese Olympic squad got to the Games thanks to a Saudi assist. Impressed by the athletes' dedication - some swimmers had to drive daily through sandbagged checkpoints in Beirut's urban battlefield just to get to a pool to train - Saudi Arabia paid Lebanon's 22 athletes' way to Seoul.
With many of his country's training facilities destroyed by the 13-year-old civil war and few coaches available, Lebanese Olympic Committee Secretary General Abdel Raouf Qaysi said he was grateful that his strife-torn land continues to be able to field a team. Lebanon has failed to do so only once in the past 40 years.
"I think it is important for us to be here. Athletes are the best ambassadors. They can help give Lebanon a positive image and bring back the international community's faith in us," Qaysi said.
In terms of medal production, the Seoul Olympiad was a big step in the right direction for Saudi Arabia.
Ibrahim Jafar, a 22-year-old Saudi, earned a bronze medal in the demonstration sport of taekwondo - the first ever for a Saudi athlete - while many of the 13 additional sportsmen who took part made good showings. Weighing in at 63 kilograms (139 pounds), Jafar won his medal in the featherweight division of this Korean martial art, tying with Jordan's Samer Kamal. (See box, page 36.) Other Saudi athletes competed in archery, shooting and track-and-field events.
"It was a great job Ibrahim Jafar did. And I think as taekwondo becomes more popular back home, we may be fortunate enough to see additional medals in this sport," said a smiling al-Deini.
Al-Deini was speaking at his Olympic Village headquarters during the second week of the Games last fall. Outside his apartment hung a huge, green Saudi Arabian flag. In the same complex of high-rise buildings, a long Moroccan banner waved in the breeze, and in a nearby outdoor reception area where athletes from around the world mingled freely - often trading national pins - flags of the 160 countries competing in the 24th Olympics snapped in a brisker wind.
Al-Deini summed up the Olympic experience this way: "Certainly medals are important, and they bring international recognition, but the goal of the Games is to promote peace through sports, and that is one of the main reasons we are here.
"It means a lot to have any athletes here, competing on this level with the world's greatest sports figures. Many of our competitors improved their own records. It would have been hard to do better.
"Sports are my major concern," said al-Deini, a former sprinter turned track-and-field coach, "and I think they are important for our young people. They teach them discipline and many other things that are crucial in their overall lives. That is why we have built some of the best facilities in the world in Saudi Arabia. We have a multi-use stadium in Riyadh, for example, that has an excellent design for track and field, football [soccer], basketball and other sports. And each club often has its own facilities. This all will help us be ready for Barcelona in 1992." Smiling, al-Deini added, "We would like very much to have the soccer team there, as well!"
Yousif al-Dossari, a 25-year-old Aramco heavy-equipment mechanic who competed in the 400-meter and 110-meter hurdles in Seoul, agreed that his sights are now set on Barcelona.
Though al-Dossari was knocked out of competition in the preliminary rounds, he called his first Olympic experience "a very good thing. And if I practice hard, I think I can make it to Spain and do better." In the meantime, al-Dossari said, in addition to his own training, he will coach, run clinics and talk to younger Saudi athletes to "inspire them to do well at the local, national and international levels."
Hadi al-Qahtani, a 23-year-old Saudi library-studies major who ran the 400- and 800-meter races, said that - in spite of his disqualification in the 800-meters for changing lanes too soon - "it has been a real pleasure to be here and see all these athletes and simply take part.
"I'm not going to get my head down. Now, I think we have a responsibility to take back our experience and help with rising athletes, because young people will look up to us."
Both young men said they had been inspired earlier in their track careers by Morocco's Said Aouita, whose 5000-meter gold medal in Los Angeles encouraged a whole generation of Arab athletes.
Oman had pinned its medal hopes on Mohammed Amer Rashid Malky a 400-meter specialist who broke the 45-second barrier in a race in Hungary last August. Malky made it to the finals, where he finished well, though considerably behind Steven Lewis, Butch Reynolds and Danny Lewis of the United States, who went one-two-three in the event.
Competing in only its second Olympics, the Sultanate of Oman was pleased to field a 13-man squad in track, boxing and shooting, Oman's minister of education and youth said.
"Sport plays an important role in the building and development of societies. It sharpens not only the body, but the mind and is an instrument meant to achieve self-refinement and self-control so vital to excel in life. It also acts as a social link to unite people and nations. We're proud to be members of the Olympic movement," he said.
Fatima Aouam, a 28-year-old Moroccan who made it to the finals of the women's 1500-meter competition, said that she, too, would work with runners coming up through the ranks to help her kingdom to extend its medal-winning string to three Olympics in Barcelona. Like a number of athletes from Africa and the Middle East - including a number of Saudis - Aouam had trained at Said Aouita's running school in Morocco.
For Ben Sliman Mounir, an official with the Tunisian volleyball team, the Seoul Games were a tune-up not for Spain, four years down the road, but for the Arab Volleyball Championships set for Saudi Arabia in November.
Arriving as African champions, Tunisia nonetheless found the going extremely tough in Korea and Mounir called the shutout defeats to the United States and Italy "a disappointment."
But he was philosophical about the team's losses. "Not everyone can win. Someone always has to lose," he said. Then, in words that could apply to all the Arab countries' participation in the Seoul Olympics, he added, "We gained by playing here and on this level of competition. We would have liked to have done better, naturally, but we think we represented ourselves well with our play and with our sportsmanship. That is most important in any contest."
Brian Clark is a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee who has covered three Olympics for Aramco World.
Arthur Clark is an Aramco staff writer in Dhahran.