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Volume 52, Number 1January/February 2001

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Great Leaps

Saudi Arabia’s First Olympic Medals

Written by Peter Harrigan and Rosalind Mazzawi

Track and Field

"I started to run as a kid with the idea that I could do something. But I had no idea what 'track and field' meant." That was 25 years ago, when Hadi Souan al-Somayli was six.

Last September 27, al-Somayli stepped onto the podium in Sydney to receive the Olympic silver medal for the 400-meter hurdles. The beaming pride on his face was mixed with a little surprise, as well: He had not only made national history by bringing Saudi Arabia its first-ever Olympic medal, but he had come within three-hundredths of a second of ending 20 years of United States dominance in the event. Al-Somayli's feet had crossed the finish line first in 47.53 seconds, but they lagged ever so slightly behind gold medalist Angelo Taylor's chest, which crossed at 47.50 seconds.

Born in the southern Red Sea port of Jizan, al-Somayli was brought up in the highland town of Taif, near Makkah, and in the 'Asir plateau town of Khamis Mushayt, where his family still lives. As a young man he moved to Riyadh to study at The Institute for Physical Education, and later to Jiddah. There he taught sports at al-Thaghr Model School, until last year's successes on the global circuit prompted him to become a full-time athlete.

"I have moved around and I can say I represent all of my country," he says. "I started by just running, then took up the decathlon, tried the high jump, and moved on to high hurdles, all before taking the advice of my first coach, Lee Evans, and opting for the 400-meter hurdles."

A virtual unknown in his own country before the Sydney Olympics, al-Somayli is now a national celebrity. Since returning with the medal, which he often keeps on the dashboard of his car, he has been feted at conferences and banquets. Wherever he goes now, boys and young men stop to salute him and call out, "Mabrouk [congratulations], ya kaptan Hadi!" "Captain" is an informal title commonly conferred on sports heroes in the kingdom.

Al-Somayli believes his achievement may mark a watershed in a nation where football (soccer) remains the national sport. "Things have changed," he explains. "People have suddenly become interested in track and field. Youngsters want to know more about athletics."

Emanuel K. Hudson, a Los Angeles sports-management attorney who has a long association with Saudi Arabia's National Athletics Federation, trains athletes around the world. He and al-Somayli's coach, Chris Smith—himself a 400-yard world record—holder who has coached more Olympic medalists than anyone in the world—are confident that more Saudi track-and-field successes are yet to come.

"There is no question that Hadi Souan is a world-class athlete," says Hudson, whose team worked with him for five months before the Olympics. "And there are a lot more [Saudi athletes] like Hadi, from the same environment, with the same body type. Saudi Arabia is hiding a real nest of talent," he adds.

Indeed, two weeks after the Olympics, another Smith-coached Saudi, 19-year-old Hamdan al-Bishi, won a gold medal at the Junior Athletics Championship in Santiago, Chile with a time that would have won an Olympic bronze medal at Sydney.

For the modest and graciously good-humored al-Somayli—"I am not really a professional, I just care a lot about sport," he says—his greatest moment came not on the podium at Sydney, but upon his return to Jiddah, where hundreds of children, many from his former school, turned out to greet him.

The medal may have been silver, he says, but "to me, this was my gold, seeing the kids I teach welcome me home."

Al-Somayli's next challenge: the World Athletic Championships in Alberta, Canada in August.

Peter Harrigan works with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he is also a contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniyah, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette.


Khaled Al 'Eid, 30, has been riding since he was 10 years old, when his father, a breeder of Arabian horses in Riyadh, taught him and four younger brothers to carry on the equestrian tradition of one of Saudi Arabia's leading thoroughbred racing families. When European-style sport jumping came to Saudi Arabia in the 1980's, Al 'Eid was among the young riders who quickly realized that the light, clever Arabian horses, though peerless as to endurance (see Saudi Aramco World , July/August 2000) lacked the raw power of top show-jumpers. The Al 'Eid family thus began to import young thoroughbreds, mostly from Holland and Belgium, for national jumping competitions. In 1990, family members made up half of the country's first regulation-size, four-man international jumping competition team: Al 'Eid and his brother Fayad were among those who began to perfect their techniques at well-known stables, including those of Paul Schockemöhle in Germany, John Whitaker in England and Bernie Traurig in the United States. The team's first Olympic competition came in Atlanta in 1996, where Khaled, riding a bay Belgian named Eastern Knight, placed 30th.

The team then began training with Nelson Pessoa, a Belgium-based Brazilian whom the International Equestrian Federation calls a "show-jumping legend." Al 'Eid and his teammates quickly found an unprecedented rapport with Pessoa, whose own son Rodrigo is also a leading equestrian jumper. Eastern Knight, after a stint with an Egyptian rider, returned to Al 'Eid in November 1999, as the Saudi team began to prepare for the Sydney Olympic Games. Al 'Eid renamed the horse Khashm al-'Aan in a discreet and subtle bow to Crown Prince 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, a supporter of the team.

"Working with Pessoa," says Al 'Eid, "I found that Khashm al-'Aan and I had the same rhythm. He had the ability to tackle high, wide, Olympic-style fences, and he gradually accepted being pushed to a higher speed around the course."

Al 'Eid also observed that Khashm al-'Aan is a "careful and stylish" jumper who, like some other show-jumping horses, needs a full day's recovery between competitive events. Accordingly, in Sydney, the pair were scheduled with a day between each of the five events: three qualifying rounds and two finals, each containing some 15 to 20 obstacles-including fences that can be higher than the horse's head. Al 'Eid recalls expecting that "with luck" he might capture 10th place in the field of 45 competitors.

On the track, better-known riders and horses-including Rodrigo Pessoa, a favorite for the gold-knocked down or refused fences, accumulating the "faults" that push down their rankings or disqualify them. Al 'Eid, however, was one of only four who completed his first final round perfectly, and then one of three to complete the second final round with only four faults. His time, the third-fastest, earned him the bronze medal, to the enormous pleasure and pride of his country, and to the surprise of the equestrian world: One Olympic news bulletin had referred to him casually as a "rank outsider" in the field. Al 'Eid credits his patient training with Pessoa, and Khashm al-'Aan's savvy accuracy for his success.

Al 'Eid plans no more international competitions until the World Equestrian Games at Jerez de la Frontera, Spain in 2002, and by the next Olympic Games in 2004, in Athens, Khashm al-'Aan will be 17, rather too old to compete. Thus, Al 'Eid says, he is already looking for a young Olympic mount, in hopes of winning still more recognition for the sport of show-jumping within his country, and for his country within the sport.

Rosalind Mazzawi is an equestrian journalist specializing in Arabian horses. She lived in Lebanon for two decades, and now lives in France.

This article appeared on pages 4-5 of the January/February 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 2001 images.