Syrian sports heroine laments her country’s ill treatment

Razan Baker | Arab News
Publication Date: 
Sun, 2009-08-30 03:00

BERLIN: Just how much sacrifice did Syrian star athlete Ghada Shouaa, the former Olympic and world heptathlon champion, have to make to put her country in the world sporting map? Let us count the ways.

She gave up her education, childhood and her social life as a 15-year-old girl to hone her skills as an athlete. Indeed, Shouaa found success and she reached the apex of her chosen career when she won the women’s heptathlon title in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics after having ruled the same event in the world athletics championships in Goteborg Switzerland a year earlier.

Thirteen years on, Shouaa still feels bitter at the shabby treatment and indifference she has been receiving from her country and her federation, despite her glowing achievements in sports. The recognition did come late but Shouaa couldn’t help pour out her sentiments in the exclusive interview to Arab News on the sidelines of the 12th world championships.

Born on Sept. 10, 1972 in Mahrda, Syria, Shouaa, who grew to 1.90 cm, realized early in life that she wanted to become an international champion and make her country proud. She used to play handball, basketball and athletics but eventually took to athletics especially the heptathlon in 1988.

“In basketball there was no way for me to reach the Asian or world level, but I knew in athletics I would have the chance to become international if I worked hard. It was a dream that I’m glad I fulfilled,” she said.

The heptathlon gave her the chance to prove herself through its various disciplines. “It was always a new challenge and I was ready to take it and compete with myself to become better, one tournament after another”.

According to Shouaa, the only goal she missed was breaking the world record, and that was due to an injury. “Until now, this really breaks my heart because, at that time, I was on top, but the injury affected me badly,” she said. 

Her road to success for gold started in 1991 when she qualified for the World Cup in Tokyo, followed by the Olympics in Barcelona a year later.

While in Spain she was injured during the competition, but continued anyway and was placed 18th in a field of 30. “For me, being there alone, was a huge step in my life,” she said.

During that period, Shouaa was being trained by the late coach Paris Votes from Latvia who used to train the Saudi national athletics team, too. “If I had someone that I owed, it would be him. He formed my personality and taught me everything from A to Z. He stayed with me from 1991 to 1995 and was like a spiritual father to me. I could still see him in front of me lecturing me and guiding me, “ she said.

For Shouaa, the road to fame was never easy, especially with the few facilities and little financial support.

Of her fame and success, Shouaa said, “Overnight, you are somebody, and suddenly you become someone else no longer belonging to yourself, but to your fans. And though some athletes would act differently, I tried my best to remain the same Ghada Shouaa because it doesn’t matter.”

Unfortunately, she added, after that Olympic victory she injured her back. Her sport federation ignored her and for 72 days she remained at home without being given the required treatment for the injury.

“How do you think I felt being a world champ and yet not getting treatment? No one would believe my condition. Were it not for the Syrian President Dr. Bashar Al-Assad and his sister Dr. Bushra Al-Assad, who ordered me to be sent to Germany, I would have been crippled by now.”

It took her almost three years to get back in shape in Germany and then she was involved in a car accident, worsening her injury. At that time, she was seeking to break the world record. She pulled herself up, trained for six months and performed almost a miracle when she won the bronze in Spain in 1999.

“I was overwhelmed with that success, considering I had been away for three years going through the injuries and the accident, but for some reason my country turned against me. Instead of congratulating me, they all blamed me for not winning the gold saying that I had enjoyed spending my time as a tourist in Germany. They forgot that I’m a human being and was suffering alone during the treatment sessions, which lasted for up to six or seven hours,” she said.

“The Syrian Athletics Federation and the Syrian Ministry of Sports were unfair to me. Lots of rumors spread about me in the media without anyone getting my side of the story though they had my contact number. The world recognized my achievements and awarded me, while my country did not until now. This raised a lot of questions in my head. Why wasn’t I rewarded, despite the historic things I accomplished for my country?” she asks.

With a voice breaking with emotion she continued, “We are living in a Mafia age where everyone wants to benefit himself.”

She wants to help her country improve in sports but she believes that one hand alone can’t accomplish much. “I have the ideas but I need the support, and without their support I would not get back. I’ m already settled here and satisfied with my life working as the Asia and Middle East Manager for Retipalm derma cosmetic Germany since 2006,” she said. Petra Melsheimer, Shouaa’s physician of 12 years, said Arab generosity and respect shown to Shouaa impressed her but she was saddened by the fact that everyone honored her except her country, adding that becoming a world champion was like no big deal at all. Many Middle Eastern men see female athletes unappealing and may not look very feminine. “But that just shows their ignorance when it comes to sports, because gender is a non-issue,” said Shouaa who is pushing 37 but still single.

Of today’s Arab athletes Shouaa said that the problem is they do not keep a balanced performance or records. Changing coaches and the unstable programs the athletes follow might be the reason. In addition, the issue of naturalized citizen athletes might be useful for some, but she believes it ruins the chances of natural born athletes to improve. Instead of spending money on foreigners, federations should spend it on its homegrown athletes, taking them to training camps locally and abroad to enhance their skills.

“I could assure you from my own experience, when an athlete like Moroccan Nawal El Moutawakel or Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka won for their countries, people welcomed their victories in a different way because they do represent their country in every way, unlike when it is someone who just received the nationality for a period of time,” she said.

Shouaa had dabbled also in the world of sports media. She made her debut as a commentator during the Osaka world championships in 2007, and did the Beijing Olympics and 15th Asian Games.

“I found myself very confident and enjoyed it very much. It was something that I know like the palm of my hand and no one could take it away from me. It was also a chance to present my game in the most accurate way and introduce it to people who had no decent background in it and its rules,” she said. 

A bemedalled athlete, Shouaa has held the Asian record since 1996, won the Asian title in 1993, 1994 and was the champion of the HYPO Meeting in Gotzis, Austria in 1995 and 1996.

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