Despite the delays and restrictions of COVID-19, and even conflict and turmoil in some countries, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics succeeded in bringing Arabs together to cheer on their athletes.
A total of 18 Arab countries sent athletes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which were delayed until August 2021 because of the pandemic. Despite the absence of the usual live audiences to cheer them on, athletes found comfort in the support they received from fans and national leaders through social media, said Arab News sports editor, Ali Mohamed Khaled.
Khaled reported that the competing countries won a total of 18 medals: 5 gold, 5 silver and 8 bronze. Among the winners were Arab women, who represented 14 of the 18 nations as flagbearers along with their male counterparts.
“It was very significant. One of the things that helped showcase how we have moved forward in this kind of thing, the Olympic Committee for the first time allowed at the opening ceremony two flagbearers, one male and one female,” Khaled said.
“In the past there was always an issue on who would take it (the flag). And this time, they were able to nominate and most of them had a female flagbearer that gave them visibility for the rest of the world. It is probably the most number of female athletes from Arab countries that we’ve had. Saudi Arabia had two (women).”
The Arab countries competing in the Olympics, according to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee, were Algeria (44 athletes), Bahrain (32), Egypt (133), Iraq (4), Jordan (14), Lebanon (8), Libya (4), Morocco (50), Oman (4), Palestine (5), Qatar (16), Saudi Arabia (29), Somalia (2), South Sudan (2)/Sudan (5), Syria (6), Tunisia (63), UAE (5), Yemen (5).
The modern Olympics have taken place since 1896 in Athens, Greece, and the first Arab country to compete was Egypt in 1912 at Stockholm. The first Arab female athlete to compete was Moroccan runner Nawal El Moutawakel, who won the gold medal in the women’s 400 meters hurdles race at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.
Arab women flagbearers in the Japanese capital during the opening ceremony included Saudi track sprinter Yasmine Al-Dabbagh, Lebanese shooter Ray Bassil, Egyptian two-time taekwondo Olympic medalist Hedaya Malak, Tunisian fencer Ines Boubakri, Moroccan boxer Oumaima Bel Habib, Jordan’s Asian Games taekwondo champion Julyana Al-Sadeq, Qatari rower Tala Abujbara, 15-year-old Bahraini swimmer Noor Yusuf Abdulla, Algerian swimmer Amel Melih, 12-year-old table tennis player Hend Zaza of Syria, Sudanese rower Esraa Khogali, Yemeni shooter Yasameen Al-Raimi, 17-year-old Kuwaiti swimmer Lara Dashti, 17-year-old Palestinian swimmer Dania Nour, and Iraqi shooter Fatimah Al-Kaabi.
And despite conflict and a one-year delay in the Olympic games, athletes came from 206 nations — including from Arab countries, Muslim countries and the Middle East region — to compete, with audiences banned from attending and Olympians restricted to minimal contact outside of the actual game competitions.
“The disruption of COVID, it worked two ways. First of all, the major disruptions like everyone was expecting to compete last year. And to postpone by a year it does really, really damage athletes’ programs,” Khaled said.
“Although in some cases some athletes who weren’t going last year ended up getting the chance this year so that was a positive for them. But it really did disrupt. Instead of the four-year cycle, which athletes train to religiously, it ended up being a five-year cycle. That was one aspect.”
But this is where social media stepped in, Khaled said during an appearance on The Ray Hanania Radio Show on Wednesday Aug. 11, 2021, broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit and Washington DC.
“Not having the fans, not having the noise and inspiration, that impacted the athletes for sure. It is less encouragement and also it affected how we viewed it on television,” Khaled said.
“It was really interesting that a lot of the passion and the excitement was transferred to social media. A lot of people were posting their views and congratulations, like world leaders, like the Egyptian president who congratulated on Twitter, he congratulated his athletes. In Saudi, people were congratulating Tareg Hamedi. So there was a lot of excitement on social media because people were posting videos of themselves and their families celebrating because in the stadium there was none of that.”
Saudi Arabia sent its biggest contingent to date to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“Saudi Arabia had the largest-ever delegation of 33 athletes. It was 11 individuals, and 22 from the squad that played in the football tournaments,” Khaled said.
“. . . It’s actually nine different sports for Saudis, which is a record. The previous record was six in Athens in 2004. So in every sense I think Saudi Arabia has expanded and backed a lot of its athletes. And you could see that also across like with lots of other Arab countries in a really difficult time when it is not easy to actually train and fund programs. There were quite a few medals in the end as well.”
Tareg Ali Hamedi won a silver medal in the men’s karate, beating more veteran opponents, Khaled said.
Khaled said there were three moments that excited him and fans throughout the Arab world.
“I would go for three who were really inspirational. I have already mentioned them. Ahmed Hafnaoui, the Tunisian 18-year-old swimmer. I think he was quite inspirational and absolutely an incredible performance to win gold. But also like inspired, and raised the spirits in his own words, he raised the spirits of a country that was going through a tough time, politically going through a tough time,” Khaled said.
“I think I mentioned Feryal Abdel Aziz, the Egyptian karate player who also won gold. I expect her legacy to be quite big in Egypt. I think a lot of people will follow her example. And I think in Saudi, the final one is Tareg Hamedi, Saudi’s only medal in the Olympics. He put on an unbelievable show, you know, and it was a shame that he lost in the circumstances that he lost through a penalty. But again it will inspire a whole new generation of kids to look at him and think, you know what, competing is incredible, and the Olympics a lot of the time is about competing, but it is also about if you win, the knock-on effect, the positivity that it sends back to the sporting industry in your country is huge.”
Overall, the negative impact of COVID restrictions and cynicism about the Olympics spending was overcome by the excitement of seeing Olympians from each country strive to achieve.
“I think sometimes people get cynical about the Olympics, you know about spending and all that. But then when you see the joy that these athletes get when they actually win, it is all worthwhile,” Khaled said.
“I would say one thing, competing, it is about competing, but more and more we would like to see Arabs also win, not just compete, we would like them to be better and win medals.”
The Ray Hanania Show is produced by Arab News at ArabNews.com on the US Arab Radio Network on WNZK AM 690 in Greater Detroit and WDMV AM 700 in Greater Washington DC, and streamed live on Facebook.com/ArabNews.