A new initiative between the General Sports Authority (GSA) and the Misk Foundation is setting up a program to promote sporting activities across the Kingdom and further the careers of future Saudi champions. Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development for the GSA, sat down with Arab News on the sidelines of the Misk Global Forum this week to speak about the new collaboration.
“We are honored to work with Misk for the future of our children,” said Princess Reema, president of the GSA’s Mass Participation Federation (MPF), after signing the deal with the Misk Foundation on Wednesday. While the details have yet to be worked out, she said it will involve athletic internships and scholarships to develop Saudi Arabia’s future champions.
The initiative is in keeping with Vision 2030’s Quality of Life program, which pledges to get Saudis moving by promoting active lifestyles and to achieve excellence in sports both regionally and globally.
“Part of our mandate is to grow the amateur to elite pathway,” the princess explained. “What that means is how can we have more young people active in the community sports groups and the grassroots activations to allow them to cultivate their skills. Hopefully they then will be scouted into the more professional sports pathway.”
The collaboration with Misk will enable that to happen. “With Misk, we are so proud to say that we’ve collaborated with their actual internship program and scholarship program to expand it to the avenue of sports,” Princess Reema said. “The exciting part about it is that many sports are vocational: They’re on-the-ground training. It is not something that you learn at school. It is the passion that you have, and then the correct team and the environment help you to cultivate it.”
The agreement will also cover scholarships for athletes. As Princess Reema explained: “What’s really critical for people to understand is that an athlete’s career does have an age limitation and sometimes a physical limitation, depending on injury. One of the mandates of the sports authority is to make sure that each of these young individuals has a second career.
“Education is critical. We obviously have partnerships with the Ministry of Education, but adding Misk to our portfolio truly is a gem. As an NGO they are able to execute faster and deliver faster than government bodies.”
The deal with Misk will enable a sports track for Saudi students studying abroad. “Misk has relationships with some of the best universities across the globe, and they have got seats in each of these universities for Saudi students, both male and female. Where we wanted to collaborate with them, and we are honored that they accepted, is to allow for a sports track.”
Princess Reema moderated a panel called the Future of Sport at the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh on Wednesday, a day that saw two other high-profile guests, Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and British-Pakistani boxer Amir Khan, express interest in opening training academies in Saudi Arabia.
“This is the beauty of this world,” said Princess Reema. “Amir Khan is a boxer. He has specific skills set, but he’s willing to teach the next generation. So, our partnership with Misk, which we were discussing this last night, is how we can send young people in the Kingdom to where Amir Khan is and learn from him: not just the skills of boxing, but everything that goes around the ecosystem of boxing. And also for him to help us to find the correct coaches and trainers who will come and train young people here. That is the kind of example of what this relationship with Misk can do and what it can offer this nation.”
There is a lot to be learned from high-caliber athletes, she said. “International athletes dedicate 100 percent of their time to their chosen sport. Today, while we don’t have the full ecosystem that can support them, we are developing it.”
Princess Reema also spoke of developments in the school system, particularly the introduction of physical education in girls’ schools this year, under a law passed in 2017. With an increased need for PE teachers, the GSA collaborated with the Ministry of Education on their training.
“The Ministry of Education has been proactive in the training of male and female PE teachers with new curriculums that they developed, and we were very honored to be a collaborative partner with them.”
The nature of that collaboration involves Olympic school days organized by the GSA, with 30 girls’ schools participating and a larger number expected in the future.
“As the sports authority and the Olympic committee we go in and do the training for the PE teachers, create the programming, and they come and compete inter-scholastically.”
Under Vision 2030, schools will see improvements in their facilities as well, Princess Reema said. “We have to remember that many of the schools are not equipped to have the kind of programs that the Minister of Education would like to implement. The plan is to invest in new facilities and new infrastructure. That’s going to change profoundly not only the quality of education, but also the PE that’s offered.”
As for the next Saudi female champion, Princess Reema said it’s a question everyone asks, and it deserves some patience. “A champion is not made overnight. A champion isn’t made in a year. A champion perseveres in their sport. A champion perseveres in the career of their sport.”
Her advice for young female athletes? “Whatever we can’t offer you, don’t stop and wait for someone to give it to you. The runner can run anywhere. The swimmer can swim. Focus on your sport and find your way. Call us for. help, because that is what we are here for. Even though the full structure may not be there yet, we are working in parallel with the athlete working on themselves.
“Your success is going to be a collaborative spirit, but you lead your success. We’re an enabler, but you have to lead it.”
The princess had a final word of advice for the parents of those budding athletes. “Pursue athletic activities with your children. You are the gateway to their success and you are the gateway to their exposure. Expose them to sports, expose them to physical activity, but also provide the holistic healthy lifestyle around them. The way they eat and sleep, and the way they engage with their community: You are in control of that. So allow them to have the correct foundation so when their dream truly becomes to be an athlete in sports, you have given them a foundation.”