Prince Faisal bin Fahad, the son of king Fahad of Saudi Arabia, who has died at the age of 54, had been general manager for the Ministry of Youth and Sports since the late 1970s. The cause of his death was surrounded with vagueness and conflicting accounts. In the House of Saud, unless one is very high profile, such details hushed up. Such news is usually leaked by people who are related one way or another to the palaces, like servants, nannies, chauffeurs and prostitutes. But, while the country and its weeping citizens, as well as the Arabic satellite channels, mourned the prince, his father remained in Spain and did not attend the funeral. The king merely issued a decree appointing another son to the Ministry of Youth and Sports; he had served as an assistant manager there since the early 1990s.
Officially, Faisal Bin Fahad was mourned as the champion responsible for ‘developing’ the Saudi sports and athletic enterprise. For us, however, the prince’s passing offers an opportunity to consider other aspects of such enterprises. While sports serve to develop young people, and keeps them from drugs, and for the luxury of the citizens, there is another side.
The phenomenon of sporting development is not limited only to Saudi Arabia. It has mushroomed in all ‘developing’ countries, especially those with oppressive regimes such as those in Arab and Muslim countries. Extravagant athletic ‘cities’ have been established. This involves building giant sports facilities and state-of-the-art athletic centers, allocating extravagant budgets for Olympic representatives, establishing youth centers, and, more recently, instituting sports for the physically handicapped. While oil-rich Muslim countries are able to absorb such extravagances, others have had to endure the monetary drain. Jordan, for example, the majority of whose people do not have running water, and where the Palestinians are still in refugee camps under appalling conditions, built the Hussein Athletic City with state-of-the-art facilties, at an exorbitant cost. High-class accommodation is now being built for the cadres of western journalists who - it is hoped ï will come to cover events there.
That despotic regimes are concerned about the ‘athletic development’ of their deprived and crushed people does not sound convincing. Does a thirsty country need expensive athletic centers with fancy swimming pools and showers? One imagines that Jordan’s citizens, had they been asked, might have suggested that their more pressing needs be met. This sports obsession might be more than just a modernizing necessity, and has serious repercussions that should not be underestimated.
There are local as well as global economic considerations. Building such an enterprise requires a huge budget, which has to come from somewhere. The local ruling Elite are sure to benefit from the lucrative business-deals and transnational corporate sponsorship. There is usually no infrastructure to support such a project; expertise, materials and maintenance need to be imported.
Foreign, and particularly western, companies seize such opportunities to implement their own agenda. Globally, the sports and athletics culture constitutes a market. This culture is a milieu for advertisements and corporate sponsorship; one cannot imagine any sport activity without Nike and Pepsi logos. Swiss timing gadgets and glittering billboards flashing in all directions are also essential. The ‘Third World’ countries are doubly exploited: once as cheap labor to produce sporting goods, as the case of the Nike factories in Indonesia, or Pakistan’s manufacture of games balls, and again as the markets for these finished goods at extortionate prices.
Recently, there has been a massive increase in sports coverage in the Muslim and Arab media. Sports news is now pushed as a necessary daily component of Muslim life, especially for young men. The international Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeerah, based in Qatar, broadcasts at least fifteen minutes of sports bulletins every hour, on the hour. Arab television deluges Muslims with superfluous sports news, much of it foreign, glorifying European soccer teams, for example.
The political implications of sports are usually ignored. International Arab tournaments, such as the recent Pan-Arab Games, are a ruse for Arab unity. Such tournaments are more political than admitted. During Iraq’s war against Iran, the Iraqi team won all Arab tournaments. Nowadays, the participation of the Iraqi athletics team is politically controversial. The infamous World Cup soccer match between Iran and the US took on a much larger political significance than being simply a game. A country’s athletic importance goes hand-in-hand with its political potency. The choice of the hosting country is also subject to political favouritism. Recently, the sports enterprise has been used to mitigate international discords and promote ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance’ between conflicting countries. Under the pretext of international sports tournaments, the Israeli sports teams are allowed into Muslim countries to participate alongside Arab and Muslim teams.
>From a technical point of view, the athletic enterprise is no longer a reflection of the sportsmanship of the competitors. It is a reflection of the technology that prepares for and records the performances. Computerized and digital results automate the athletes. Technologically disadvantaged countries need not participate; instead, they can only sell potential champions to other countries. North African players often play for European national teams, effectively ‘bought’ by the huge monetary rewards available there. One can imagine the confusion in loyalty this must cause the fans; it also inadvertently exposes the fallacy of national attachments.
One athletic fad seeping into the Muslim countries now is sporting events for the handicapped. While this might appear a humanitarian concern, in reality it is nothing but a public relations ploy that the oppressive regimes exploit to divert the public’s attention from questioning important issues, such as the legitimacy of importing the enterprise. Another fad is the frenzy to participate in the Olympic Games, where countries can assert their international presence by brandishing their national costumes in the opening and closing ceremonies. More seriously, like their steroid-bloated western counterparts, there is an emerging drug problem in the Arab Games.
One wonders why Muslims think it so important to participate in international events about which they understand nothing. Naively, many Muslims justify involvement in the sports industry by misconstruing the ahadith of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which advise teaching children swimming, shooting and horseback riding. The modern sportsmania should not be misrepresented as youth-development; citing hadith in this context is to turn tradition into cliché. Rather, it is designed specifically to control the youth and keep them busily addicted to a self-perpetuating institution of which they cannot get enough. Sports sedate the youth and give them false allegiances. Official national athletic teams became the only patriotic manifestations allowed. Encouraging immorality is another consequence of the enterprise. Increasing tolerance of permissiveness, through mixed-sex activities, and the un-Islamic clothing codes for men and women, will assure the breakdown of Islamic boundaries.
Ideologically, the western way of doing sports, which is imbedded in Graeco-Roman traditions, has become the only valid option for physical fitness. Meanwhile, Eastern sporting traditions, which are deeply rooted, time-tested, and cheap, such as yoga and tai chi, have become reduced to forms of stress relief, which is no surprise since such sports are individually practised and require no special equipment.
That the colonized peoples are perpetuating their own colonization is a sad reality of the contemporary Muslim situation. The question is not really whether this effect of the sporting industry is deliberately intended or not; rather, this is about the psyche of the Muslims that makes them susceptible to it. It is becoming detrimental for Muslims to keep track of the fads and waves that seep through their culture. The assault is on all fronts and not limited to the overtly political issues.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999