Change in Mid-East Olympics coverage

Are we seeing a deliberate softening of TV coverage of formally taboo sports events in the Middle East? Dubai was reportedly keen on bidding for an upcoming Olympics, with talk of a 2016 bid. That’s now ruled out, but 2020 is possible. With nearby Doha (left) also in the list of possible bidders there are two very rich, and therefore serious contenders.
The 2016 Games will be held in either Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or Madrid. A decision will be announced on February 12 2009, and Chicago is currently a hot favourite. But one of the softer bidders for 2016 was Qatar capital Doha (along with Prague, and Baku in Azerbaijan). However, a considerable anxiety for the Olympic organising committee was how an Islamic host nation would handle – or even tolerate – female participants in swimming competitions let alone female involvement in athletics or beach volleyball.

So what have viewers been watching in the Middle East this past week? A Rapid TV News reader, based in Dubai, counts between seven and nine “Arabic channels” predominantly devoted to Olympic coverage. Dubai Sports 1 and 2, Abu Dhabi Sports, Kuwait Sports, Nile Sport, and somewhere between two and four of Al Jazeera’s sports channels. “Four years ago I recall being able to find pretty much nothing at all. (I’m sure there was some coverage, but I think most of the above-mentioned sports channels were either newborns or not yet in existence),” says our reader.

He adds that Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and one of Dubai’s channels seem to be sharing a generic Arabic audio commentary. “Al Jazeera Sports has gone much further with their own commentators – seems like they are making an effort to try to help viewers enjoy and appreciate some of the sports which are pretty much unknown in the region.”

“I think all this coverage begs some interesting questions,” he suggests. “Sports in the Mid East is typically known only as ‘football’ and precious little else seems to interest viewers here. But is it perhaps a bit of chicken and egg? Because most people have not had any TV exposure to other sports they are not interested in other sports? Of course there’s also the element that Arabs are not winning many medals in springboard diving or women’s floor exercises, but again, perhaps even minimal TV coverage can be a catalyst to getting more participation in non-football and in four to 40 years we may see Arab dividends from today’s Olympic coverage.”

Our reader answers our hypothetical question of female swim-wear, thus. “And what about all those hours of absolutely non-sexual video footage of women wearing swim suits and leotards? Think about it – almost all other video images that arrive in this region of women wearing form-fitting swim suits have sexual overtones. No wonder people here have difficulty accepting that a woman in a swim suit is … just a woman in a swim suit!”

But what are the facts on Gulf participation in a future Olympics? Doha’s 2016 bid was serious enough, and a resurrected bid for 2020 is not out of the question. The oil and gas-rich Qataris have cash galore, and have already successfully hosted the Asian Games in 2006 (and this attracted a record 45 Asian countries taking part). There was some criticism, mostly concentrated on poor public transportation, but that also applied to the Atlanta Games. The Doha Asian events held plenty of female competitions, including swimming and gymnastics, and without the hint of a problem.

The same could certainly apply to Dubai which has plenty of cash, and could already manage equestrian events, and would – seemingly – happily build world-class venues for the competitions. Dubai Sports City is already a fact, and there’s no shortage of accommodation for paying spectators. Dubai has – sort of – already thrown its hat into the ring with a statement in April expressing a willingness to bid.

There are, however, some objections. Top of the list would be the current discouragement towards local participation by females. This seems to be changing, and the Beijing TV coverage might be another proof of softening attitudes amongst the more conservative Middle East nations.

Another valid objection is the heat. It has been suggested that holding events in the “cool” autumn, when temperatures are a more manageable 30 deg C, might be a solution. However, US broadcasters don’t much care for that degree of slippage from July/August and would tend to clash with their domestic sports season kick-offs. Some outdoor events, not least the Marathon, might have to be staged at night, but most other facilities could be built with Air Conditioning provided, even for large scale normally outdoor events like equestrianism. There’s also plenty of proof that summer in Mexico City was not the complete nightmare originally anticipated.

Doha or Dubai tick many, many IOC boxes. They are Islamic countries and no Olympics have ever been held in an Islamic city. They are in the Mid-East, and the same applies. They are close to South Asia, and again no Indian city has won a bid. And perhaps most appealing of all to IOC judges, as our reader reminds us, they are obsessed by soccer, and the IOC would no doubt like to see a greater public awareness and participation in sports.

Whether Doha or Dubai (or Abu Dhabi), there would need to be vast commitments to public transport, and a softening of attitudes to female participation by local youngsters. It might be some time yet before, for example, a Saudi woman competed in the swim pool, or on the parallel bars, but it should not be out of the question for an Egyptian, or Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani or Emirate youngster being an active participant in a 2020 Olympics held in the Gulf. The IOC might welcome that situation.