Why do Muslim nations do so poorly at international sports?

Posted By Levi

May 24th, 2012 7:59pm

Following up on my previous post about the limited access to sports that girls and women have in Saudi Arabia, I have always wondered why Muslim countries do so poorly in the Olympics in terms of medals won. Of course, this is part of the reason; women are generally shut out of sporting activities in these countries. Islamic countries generally have few or no women in their Olympic teams. For example at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the United Arab Emirates and Oman sent their first female athletes to the Games. Pakistan and Bahrain sent two; Iran sent 53 athletes of which only three were women; Iraq had one while Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait sent none.  

But it seems the problem runs much deeper.

In many Muslim countries the more traditional elements regard sports as an indulgence that could divert human attention from religious duties. In the 1970s when Iran hosted the Asian Olympics, several mullas, including the late Ayatollah Khomeini, denounced the exercise as “a Jewish-Crusader conspiracy” to take Muslims out of mosques and into sports stadiums.One of Khomeini’s first acts, after he seized power in 1979, was to disband all the 600 or so sports clubs and associations that operated throughout Iran. Even football, the nation’s favorite sport, was banned for three years.

Some theologians are opposed to sports because it requires physical contact. And that, in a culture, which is uncomfortable with the human body as such, is always a source of alarm. Iranian mullas, for example, have tried for decades to ban free-style wrestling, a sports that has a history of 3000 years in the country, because of fears that it might encourage homosexual tendencies between adversaries whose almost naked bodies are bound to touch in the course of a match. The sport has managed to survive the advent of Khomeinism by forcing wrestlers to compete fully clothed.

Some Muslim despots fear sports as an activity that could open spaces beyond the control of the regime. They are also uncomfortable with sports stars whose popularity could nibble at the prestige of the “supreme leader”. Often, Muslim sports champions end up either as officials of the regime or flee into exile or take to drugs and alcohol en route to early death.

With a good portion of their resources allocated to the military, most Muslim nations have little money left to spend on such “luxuries” as sport. Iran, for example, boasts only one Olympics size swimming pool, built in the 1970s by the Shah for the nation’s once famous water-polo team. In Indonesia fewer than five percent of school-age children receive regular physical education. In most cases Muslim athletes must hold one or more jobs to pay for their own training. Turkey, the leader of the Muslim world in sports, devotes less than one percent of its national budget to sports, compared to 18 percent for defense.

There are hopeful signs that change might be coming for Muslim female atheltes at the upcoming 2012 London Games.

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