POSTED: July 4th 2012
Qatar: More than mere numbers for London 2012
AJU GEORGE CHRIS / Doha Stadium Plus
July 4 - The Chinese consider eight to be a number which brings prosperity and confidence. They did not think twice to start the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics at exactly 8min and 8sec past 8pm, on August 8, 2008.
The Qatar squad for the ’12 London Olympics will feature 12 athletes — eight men and four women.
While China deliberately played the number game, for Qatar, it is mere coincidence. However, like the ’08 hosts, the Qatari squad too will come under intense media scrutiny.
Not just national media, that is.
And for once, they will overlook high jumper Motaz Essa Barsham and skeet shooter Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah, two of the country’s genuine medal contenders.
Instead, the focus will be on Qatar’s women athletes — sprinter Noor Al Malki, swimmer Nada Mohammad Wafa Arakji, shooter Bahiya Mansour Al Hamad and table tennis player Aya Majdi.
As they walk down the track at the London Olympic Stadium on July 27, they will open up new sporting vistas to Qatari girls.
It will be the first time Qatar has sent women to the quadrennial Games since it began participating in 1984, at Los Angeles. The country will thus end the ignominy of being one of only three, the others being Saudi Arabia and Brunei, to have never sent women participants to the Games.
It will be a historic moment for the country, but it is by no means an overnight development. In fact, it has been a major proponent of change ever since the Qatar Women’s Sport Committee (QWSC) was formed in ’01.
A year after its establishment, Qatar fielded a women’s shooting team at the Busan Asian Games. Four years later, at the Doha Asiad, 46 women competed, while in ’10, in Guangzhou, China, 56 women athletes took part.
QWSC President Ahlam Al Mana recalled the initial years.
“The Busan Asian Games was the first major international competition for our girls. I remember how we strove to convince parents to send their daughters with us. We had limited success, but it was very encouraging.
“It was easier in Doha as it was happening right next door and girls didn’t have to travel out of the country. Parents saw their children competing for the first time and felt proud. It opened doors. We haven’t looked back since then,” she said.
Alanood Al Nime, who has managed the national women’s shooting team since ’03, felt two incidents helped the popularity of the women’s discipline skyrocket.
“The first was when three Qatari women shooters — Amal Mahmoud, and sisters Anisa and Samsam Jama — won bronze in 10M running target team event at the Doha Asian Games. It brought the sport to national attention and we had soon more than 30 new shooters in the team.
“Six years later, with Bahiya’s qualification for London Games, the interest has once again peaked. More children and parents have started enquiring about how to join our development squad. We aren’t discouraging anyone,” she said.
Bahiya, basking in fame, is no stranger to momentous occasions. The 19-year-old, who rose to prominence by winning five gold medals at the Arab Juniors in Morocco in ’09, also became Qatar’s first female participant at the ’10 Singapore Youth Olympic Games.
She carried the nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony and called it a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity.
“It isn’t everyday you get to carry your country’s flag at an event as important as the Youth Olympics. I’m proud, honoured and privileged to have been chosen for it. I hope a girl will once again carry the country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony in London,” she said.
While women’s participation in one Olympics cannot guarantee revolutionary changes, it can be seen as a measure of the attitudinal shift. It seems to hold true in Qatar’s case.
Keeping with the Olympic spirit, the country seems to be in a hurry to move things forward. While plans for three high-profile, multi-specialty women’s training centres have already been announced, the establishment of new women’s national leagues in handball and basketball signals changes at the grass-roots level, which is equally encouraging.
None of the four Qatari women competitors is expected to add to the country’s tally of two bronze medals, which its men won over the last 28 years. But being there and trying it is in itself a statement of intent.
“The best time and place in the world to be a female athlete is now and in Qatar,” said a Qatari track and field athlete, during a training session at the outdoor training field of the Khalifa International Stadium, recently.
There was not even a bit of exaggeration in that.
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