Middle East Faces Drought of Sporting Success

Iranian Wrestler Hamid Sourian

Iranian Wrestler Hamid Sourian

By Cole Paxton

Photograph of Hamid Sourian courtesy of Alchetron

This article is Part Three of a Three Part series discussing sports in the Middle East. We encourage you to read Part One and Part Two.

Middle Eastern nations seem to be buying their way to sporting success. Or more accurately, trying to buy their way to success.

Money, though, can only get you so far, as evidenced by the competition fates of nations from Morocco to Afghanistan. Championship caliber Middle Eastern athletes are few and far between and often concentrated in niche sports.

These nations struggle against far smaller and poorer peers, and many have hardly any top-class athletes at all. When first-flight championships come to the Middle East, the champions come too. But when the events pass and fade away, so do the athletes, slipping out of a landscape devoid of gold medals and other sporting accomplishments.

Summertime sadness

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, North Korea, the rundown, impoverished hermit state, did something almost no Middle Eastern nations did: win six medals.

Only Iran, which tallied four gold and 12 total medals, outclassed the reclusive nation known more for a deadly famine and wildly enigmatic leader than as a sporting prowess.

However, other athletes from the region struggled to find the podium. Tunisia won just one of each color. Algeria grabbed a gold. Egypt added two silvers. Qatar bagged two bronzes. Five countries from the region picked up a paltry one medal apiece, not to mention the plethora of others that came home with nothing.

The London Olympics offer even more examples of the Middle East’s comparative sporting failures. Mongolia, with less than half the population of Cairo, won five medals and Puerto Rico—not even an independent country!—took two. This is just one illuminating comparison of just how poorly the region’s athletes fare on the grandest of stages.

The struggles extend beyond the Olympics. Across world championships in seven popular Olympic disciplines in 2015—swimming, track and field, gymnastics, diving, rowing, cycling and judo—the Middle East as a whole gathered up just two medals, a silver and a bronze in track and field.

Even on the continental level, the results are disappointing. At the Asian Games, an Olympic-style competition held every four years restricted to athletes from Asian nations, Iran sits sixth on the all-time medal table, trailing athletic welterweights like India and Thailand.

Speaking of North Korea, it sits 10 spots ahead of Qatar and 12 ahead of Kuwait all-time. Turkmenistan, a bonafide hermit state itself, has outclassed Middle Eastern nations such as Lebanon, Afghanistan and Oman.

Still searching for success

A quick glance at the winter Olympic medal table looks far worse for the Middle East than its summer counterpart. Because of its climate, struggles in cold-weather sports appear somewhat understandable. However, the region has yet to win a single medal from a Winter Olympics. Not one. A handful of nations have never even competed.

Just two Middle Eastern nations—Iran and Lebanon—have ever won medals at the Asian Winter Games, and two of the five medals came in the non-Olympic ski orienteering.

The picture is just as bleak in team sports. Rugby is completely non-existent, and cricket is virtually that way as well with the exception of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Soccer offers some hope: Saudi Arabia qualified for four straight World Cups beginning in 1994, and Iran has made three appearances since 1998. Neither have ever been serious title contenders, however. Turkey’s Cinderella run to the 2002 Semifinals represents the biggest success for a Middle Eastern side.

Qatar, which has never qualified for a World Cup, will host the 2022 edition and may be buoyed by their hosting duties. Hopefully the presence of the world’s best will help promote and develop the game both in Qatar and across the region.

The same can’t be said about the Olympics. The winter games will almost certainly never come to the region, and as the Olympic Charter mandates that the summer games take place in mid-summer, it’s unlikely they’ll be setting up shop in Tunisia or the United Arab Emirates. Imagine running the marathon in 120 degrees.

Rays of hope

In the barren landscape that is the Middle Eastern sporting topography, a few diamonds stick out. The biggest name may be Mutaz Essa Barshim, a Qatari high jumper who took bronze in London and added world championship silver a year later.

Tunisian swimmer Ous Mellouli is a two-time Olympic champion, having won distance events in both 2008 and 2012. His form has dipped considerably since London, however, and he withdrew from last year’s world championships with an injury.

A handful of others have made their mark, including Olympic champion runner Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria and six-time world champion wrestler Hamid Saurian of Iran. Saurian was one of three Iranian wrestlers to take gold in London.

Success was more muted among female athletes, but Tunisia’s Habian Ghirbi claimed silver in the steeplechase and Maryam Yusuf Jamal took Bahrain’s first ever Olympic medal with bronze in the 1500 meters. Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent women to the Olympics for the first time in London.

Egypt, meanwhile, is a powerhouse in squash, which is not an Olympic sport. Egyptians have won a total of eight medals at the last four world championships, and Ramy Ashour has claimed two titles in that span.

Despite these accomplishments, the Middle East’s outlook for the coming contests in Rio looks far from rosy. According got the latest medal projections from Infostrada, de facto regional leader Iran is projected to finish 30th and win just two gold medals. Only five other Middle Eastern nations are forecasted to win any medals, and countries such as Moldova and Vietnam are expected to finish above Egypt and Algeria.

So for as many top events head to the Middle East, as many championship athletes venture to the Middle East to compete and as many athletes Middle Eastern nations naturalize, the results aren’t showing in competition. The region may one day become a global sporting power, but for now it hardly causes a ripple at the Olympics, the Asian Games or the World Cup.

Sadly for the region, North Korea and Mongolia are making splashes, however small.

No matter whose successes you use as a measuring stick, Middle Eastern athletes aren’t just slipping off the diving board. They’re belly flopping.

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