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Jakarta Post

Why Muslim countries fail to shine at Olympic Games

  • Veeramalla Anjaiah

Jakarta   /   Fri, August 12, 2016   /  06:58 am
Why Muslim countries fail  to shine at Olympic Games In this July 23, 2016 file photo, a representation of the Olympic rings are displayed in the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP/Leo Correa)

In the coming days, until Aug. 21, more than 3 billion people worldwide will watch on their televisions or online through live streaming the spectacular performance of 10,500 athletes from 206 countries competing in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Exactly 301 gold medals are at stake at the 31st Summer Olympics.  

Now look at how Muslim or Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia, are performing in the Olympics today and in those in the past, considering there are 2 billion Muslims in the world, or more than 25 percent of the world population of 7 billion.

The 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) performed poorly in previous Olympics. Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, did not win a single gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics. It won a silver medal and a bronze medal and ended up at 63rd position out of 204 countries.  

If we look at the final medal tally from the London Games, we will find some surprising facts.  

Only eight OIC member countries out of 57 — Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Algeria and Uganda — won gold medals, 19 in total, with Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation, topping the list with seven golds.

What is wrong with OIC member states, including Indonesia, in the field of sports? Look at the top three winners at the London Olympics — the US, China and Britain and consider the major factors behind their success.

Believe it or not, women have been the key to success in the Olympics for many decades. More than 50 percent of all medals won by the top three winners of the London Olympics came from their female athletes. American sportswomen, for example, contributed 29 out of the country’s collection of 46 gold medals.

 In the Rio Olympics, the US is fielding a large contingent of 550 athletes, including 292 women. Similar figures in the female ratio can be seen in the contingents of major sporting nations.

Like many other Muslim countries, Indonesia sent only 10 women athletes to Rio. Indonesia’s 28 athletes, a small number compared to size of the country’s population, are competing in badminton, athletics, archery, rowing, weightlifting, cycling and swimming.

It should be noted that Indonesia’s first medal in Rio came from woman weightlifter Sri Wahyuni Agustiani, who took a silver.

On Sunday, Maljinda Kelmindi, a female judo athlete from Muslim-majority Kosovo, won the first ever Olympic gold medal for her country. The first Muslim female athlete who took part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics was Turkey’s woman fencer Halet Cambel, and Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel was the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal (in 400 meter hurdles) in Los Angeles in 1984.

 Women in many Muslim countries face discrimination as well as harassment over their sport outfits and discouragement in the fields of sports, arts, education and culture despite the fact that Islam encourages men and women to acquire knowledge, to be healthy and stay fit.

“Their [Muslim women’s] biggest hurdle preventing girls from taking up sports is religious extremism, particularly for those living in conservative Muslim countries. Although there is nothing in the Quran forbidding women and girls from exercising and playing sports, religious scholars are making Islam more restrictive than it should be through misinterpretations,” noted women’s rights activist Shaista Gohir was reported as saying on the Huffington Post website recently.

Although women constitute almost 50 percent of their population, many OIC members failed to send women athletes to the Olympic Games until 2012. Sending fewer or no athletes to the Olympics means fewer chances to shine at the games.

Indonesia’s first Olympic medal came from its trio of female archers, a silver, in Seoul in 1988, while the first gold medal was won by female shuttler Susi Susanti in Barcelona in 1992.

In recent years, positively, there has been a change in the perceptions of OIC member states toward women participation in the Olympics. In the Beijing Games in 2008, only Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei did not have any female athletes. After a lot of criticism and pressure from women’s activists, these three conservative countries sent female athletes, for the first time, to the Olympics in London, a historic one in the sense that every participating country had female athletes.

Another concern is a lack of sports culture in Muslim countries as evident in the absence of regular tournaments, starting from the village to national level for young children. Through such tournaments, coaches can spot talents at an early age and turn them into super stars in 10 or 15 years time.

To excel in the Olympics a country needs to make sports compulsory in all private and state schools, and there should be at least four tournaments every year for the students to demonstrate their sporting skills.

Another big mistake Indonesia and other OIC members are making is the incorrect selection of sports and strategy. Learning from leading sports nations, it is very clear they have been focusing on multi medal events rather than events that offer fewer medals. In Rio, there are 301 gold medals at stake, with 80 percent up for grabs in only 13 sports. Athletics top the list with 47 gold medals, followed by swimming ( 34 ), cycling ( 18 ), gymnastics ( 18 ), canoeing ( 16 ), weightlifting ( 15 ), wrestling ( 15 ), shooting ( 15 ), judo ( 14 ), rowing ( 14 ), boxing ( 11 ), sailing ( 11 ) and fencing ( 10 ).

Most Muslim countries, however, invest a lot in popular sports like soccer, which only offers two gold medals at the Olympics. On the other hand, China has emerged as a sporting powerhouse after less than three decades, thanks to its emphasis on multi medal events.

It is not too late for Indonesia to revamp its sports policy and launch a nationwide campaign to encourage sports in villages, towns and cities. Of course, it would require extra money, effort and determination. Introducing such a campaign would hopefully pay dividends in the next two or three decades.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post

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