The year 2020 will forever be remembered for one thing, and one thing only. But from adversity came innovation, and a fierce fightback.
What the rest of 2021 and beyond will look like after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic abates remains to be seen, but the positive impact Saudi Sports For All (SFA) had on a homebound population’s mental and physical wellbeing during a suffocating lockdown has been tangible.
Programs such as “Baytak Nadeek” (Your Home, Your Gym), the Women’s Fitness Festival, and others attracted thousands, and often millions, of participants through social media channels.
“The lockdown of 2020 showed us how we can innovate and work around tight, necessary, restrictions.” Shaima Al-Husseini, managing director at SFA, told Arab News. “If we have another lockdown, we could build on the foundation of the successful programs we’ve put in place and innovate further as needed.”
While Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries are not short on major international sporting events, the SFA’s mission is to ensure that sports thrive at grassroots levels. It’s a bottom-up approach that has over the last three years seen the SFA sign a number of fitness initiatives at local communities across the country.
Among them is an agreement with the Ministry of Municipality and Rural Affairs and Housing to activate parks and public spaces in three cities, with multi-sport, running and walking programs, equipment rentals, and community academies being introduced to impact healthy long-term behavior.
In November, the SFA signed a memorandum of understanding with Majid Al-Futtaim under which the sports group will produce community programs at future Majid Al-Futtaim malls, while receiving guidance on how to ensure SFA facilities are aligned with international standard green building requirements.
There are other plans, on a more global scale.
“We also developed and strengthened partnerships both locally and internationally with parties such as the World Health Organization (WHO), PepsiCo, the Global Goals World Cup, The Association for International Sport for All, Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports, and many others,” Al-Husseini said.
“Our collaboration with the WHO will see the SFA host global events in the Kingdom, including the Riyadh edition of Walk the Talk,” she added. “The SFA’s strategy will also receive technical assistance from WHO which will keep it aligned with the global action plan of physical activity.”
Since its establishment in 2018, the SFA has become an integral part of the Saudi sporting scene, but for Al-Husseini, there is much work still to be done and no time to sit back and admire what has already been achieved.
“The SFA’s focus is to take a holistic approach to healthy living under several pillars that benefit all sectors of society. So, it’s difficult to be proud of one (particular) step, when we have achieved so much in different areas,” she said.
“With 2020’s lockdown restricting movement, we had to innovate to bring ‘at home’ solutions to Saudis throughout the Kingdom, and we were able to deliver a number of digital offerings to keep people active. We continue to work towards our goal to have 40 percent of all people in Saudi active by 2030.”
The level of engagement during the lockdown prompted SFA President Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal to say: “I’m awestruck by the power of our healthy and active community.”
Crowning a hectic 2020 for the SFA was the launch of the Women’s Football League (WFL) in November, with 24 teams taking part in the competition across Riyadh, Jedddah, and Dammam.
“The establishment of the WFL has been a landmark achievement in Saudi’s sporting history,” said Al-Husseini.
What perhaps went unnoticed beyond its cultural significance was the sheer scope of logistics needed to get the WFL off the ground, with the competition originally mooted for the start of the year but delayed by COVID-19.
“Having the WFL kick off in three parts of the country allowed for a wide scope of players to come forward and sign up, and we had 607 players in 24 teams that had all-female organizational and technical teams,” said Al-Husseini, adding: “The players’ enthusiasm for the game and their sheer talent were remarkable. It’s exciting to think about how the SFA can continue to develop the League, both in terms of enhancing the infrastructure for women in sports and offering training opportunities for local referees.”
On Dec. 17, Challenge Riyadh defeated Jeddah Eagles to take home the WFL Champions Cup and the prize money of SR150,000 ($39,975). The league is set to return for a second season.
Its success bodes well for the future of other organized sports competitions.
“If the interest in the WFL is any indicator, women’s sport in Saudi Arabia is likely to expand exponentially,” Al-Husseini said. “We are working towards developing sports across all sectors and women’s sport is certainly included in that.”
Despite her busy schedule, Al-Husseini herself continues to regularly play tennis and squash, and is an avid follower of basketball and American Football. And while she has no particular favorite individual athletes, she points to several inspirational Saudi female role models.
“HRH Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud is a role model for any young female Saudi,” she said. “Not only is she the former Chair of the SFA, but she is also currently the Saudi Ambassador to the US.
“In July, she was confirmed as a member of the International Olympic Committee, which further cemented her commitment to continue endorsing the ongoing endeavors of the SFA, where she remains a member of the board, to reach its Vision 2030 goals.”
Al-Husseini believes that while the SFA’s role is to encourage a healthy and active lifestyle at community level, it can also be a catalyst to promoting the nation’s high-achieving athletes towards professional careers in sport.
“We are working with different bodies to develop the necessary infrastructure to keep raising the caliber of sporting talent in the Kingdom,” she said.
“As different sports continue to receive the necessary support in terms of funding and facilities, and as athletes continue to be given the right environment, training, and encouragement to achieve their best, Saudi Arabia will continue to produce competitors that will make their mark in the international and Olympic arenas.”