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Volume 43, Number 1January/February 1992

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The Islamic Games

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Turk Haberler Ajansi

In 1980, world sports were dominated by the Moscow Olympics. But last September in Turkey, quietly and with little fanfare, another international sports event was inaugurated: the Islamic Games.

Located at Izmir, on Turkey's lovely Aegean coast, the Islamic Games were held between September 26 and October 6 and though far less elaborate than the Moscow games—and virtually unpublicized—the first Sports Games of Islamic Countries were, as one participant put it, "a great step forward in the effort to get 42 Muslim nations together on the sports field."

Undoubtedly, the Izmir event was comparatively modest. Only nine countries were able to send teams to Izmir, fewer than 700 athletes competed and there were only seven sports represented: track and field, swimming, football, wrestling, basketball, volleyball and tennis. Yet the Islamic Games, a new idea, were played in the same competitive spirit as the competitions in Moscow, and with something more: a determination that for once the smaller countries would compete in an international event without being overwhelmed and discouraged by the giants of the sports world. "The best part about these games," said Professor A. Chowdhry General Secretary of the International Amateur Boxing Association, "is that all the countries competing have relatively the same level of performance. This provides our athletes with encouragement to put on an even better performance."

In a sense, one observer commented, the Islamic Games also restored some of the freshness of the original games—if only because Izmir, appropriately, adjoins the Aegean region where the Olympic tradition blossomed 2,700 years ago, when the ancient Greeks organized a race among their best runners at Olympia to honor Zeus, and because a native son of Izmir, then called Smyrna, won the Olympics' first boxing match in 688 B.C.

There were also practical reasons to hold the games in Izmir: an impressive assortment of sports facilities, including the 40,000-seat Ataturk stadium, a sports hall, tennis courts and swimming pool, and the Izmir Olympic Village. Capable of accommodating 2,000 athletes, the village was built by the Turkish government for the 1971 Mediterranean Games (See Aramco World, Summer 1972).

Such competition among athletes from Islamic countries is not entirely new. In 1976, for example, the Arabian Games were held in Damascus, and in 1977 an event in Kuwait featured athletes from countries located in the Arabian Peninsula. The Izmir games, however, are unique in concept because they sought to gather competitors not from particular geographic regions, or from a particular ethnic group—but from all Islamic countries.

The decision to hold an Islamic competition was taken by foreign ministers of 42 Muslim states meeting in Islamabad in 1979. "It was felt that this was a good way to bring the Muslim countries closer together," explains Wan Ahmad Radzi, Malaysia's Director-General of Sports. The Muslim states, furthermore, unlike some countries in 1980, made it clear that the Islamic games are to be a permanent feature of the international Islamic calendar. Meeting in Izmir prior to the opening of last fall's games, sports officials from Muslim countries decided to hold an Islamic Games every four years, one year prior to the world Olympics. This, officials explained, will give Muslim athletes an opportunity to warm up for the world Olympics the following year. After meeting, delegates unanimously accepted the invitation of Saudi Arabia's delegates to hold the 1983 Olympics in Saudi Arabia, and agreed that the number of sports, wherever the games are held, should be increased from the seven at Izmir to a minimum of 12. These will be swimming, football, wrestling, boxing, cycling, shooting, lawn and table tennis, basketball, volleyball and handball and, if facilities are available, up to three more.

In the meantime, the Izmir conference decided, writers, composers and artists throughout the Muslim world will be engaged in a competition to select an emblem and an anthem for future Islamic Games.

At the Izmir games, the largest visiting contingent—141 athletes—came from Saudi Arabia, with Libya second (95) Malaysia third (78) and Pakistan fourth (42). Other countries participating in the 10-day event were Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Morocco, the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus, plus the host country, Turkey.

And the winners? Well actually, as one observer put it, "Everyone won, in that all the athletes learned what the leader to the Pakistani contingent called 'unity through sports within the Muslim community,' Thafs worth a gold medal right there."

There were, of course, real medals as well:

   Gold  Silver  Bronze
 Turkey  63  38  16
 Morocco  7  4  3
 Algeria  4  14  23
 Pakistan  3  18  5
 Turkish Federated State of Cyprus  3  3  9
 Saudi Arabia  3  1  4
 Bahrain  2  2  2
 Libya  2  1  3
 Malaysia  —  4  3
 Bangladesh  —  —  4

And even the 28 athletes from Bangladesh who won no gold or silver medals, left Izmir content. As the leader of their contingent said: "We didn't come here to win medals, we came here to win friends—and we won plenty of them."

John Lawton, a roving correspondent for Aramco World Magazine, is a veteran UP1 reporter now free-lancing from London.

This article appeared on pages 24-25 of the January/February 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1992 images.