The Middle East: A Growing Power in International Sports

Competitors in the Abu Dhabi Cycling Tour

Competitors in the Abu Dhabi Cycling Tour

By Cole Paxton

Photograph of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Tour courtesy of Yahoo News

This is the first of a three-part series examining the present sports landscape in the Middle East.

In six years, the eyes of the world will fixate on Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich nation in the Arabian Gulf, for the 2022 World Cup.

Already, however, many eyes in the sporting world are trained on the Middle East.

From boxing to cycling, the Middle East is no longer a black hole on the international sporting calendar, nor a region filled with mega-rich businessmen who lure federations into bringing only low importance events.

The region is increasingly hosting more major events in a dizzying array of sports, expanding beyond ritzy award presentations into high-prestige competitions featuring many of the world’s best athletes. In many ways, these events reflect the Middle East as a whole: lavish, stately and full of flair.

Making a statement

 In October, the UCI, international cycling’s governing body, held its first annual end-of-season awards event. UCI held the event in Abu Dhabi, the ritzy city in the United Arab Emirates known more for its luxury hotels than being a cycling hotbed.

Nonetheless, several of the world’s top cyclists appeared, including two-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome and 2015 World Road Race Champion Peter Sagan.

As UCI President Brian Cookson said, the event “was a wonderful opportunity to gather together some of the biggest stars of cycling for a true celebration of our sport.” Instead of taking that celebration to Aukland, Athens, or Atlanta, the UCI chose Abu Dhabi.

Just a couple of months later, more sporting royalty descended, coincidentally, on Abu Dhabi. This time the focus was not on athletes but journalists, as the International Sports Press Association presented its Sports Media Pearl Awards.

Though journalists were the focus, athletes themselves also played a significant role. Jonathan Edwards, the current world record holder in the triple jump, hosted the event, and other stars present included the former NBA star Yao Ming.

The journalism awards, just as the cycling ceremony, were first held in 2015. Though the organization is headquartered in Paris, it chose Abu Dhabi for its debut presentations.

“It means we’re on track to increase public approval, locally and internationally,” said Osama Al Shafar, President of the UAE Cycling Federation, of Abu Dhabi hosting the event.

Sure, no athletes competed at these events. No one won a gold medal. But for two fall evenings, at least, the spotlight of international sports shined brightly on Abu Dhabi.

Luring the best

Far more than award ceremonies and posh gatherings are coming to the Middle East.

Take, for example, the Abu Dhabi Tour. The four-day cycling event came to the United Arab Emirates in October, coinciding with the end-of-year awards ceremony.

The race technically formed part of the second-tier UCI Asia Tour. Further, the early-October event came at the end of the season for most riders and offered little to gain.

Despite those factors, riders trekked across the world for the inaugural event. The race attracted several stars. Tour organizers not only convinced competitors to add another event to their already grueling season, but managed to draw the best in the world. Sagan and 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali both attended, as did a handful of other well-known names in the cycling world.

In boxing, meanwhile, the best in the world traveled to the Middle East in hopes of being crowned world champion, as Doha, Qatar hosted the 2015 World Boxing Championships.

The event had never previously been held in the Middle East; Doha defeated a bid from Bangkok to win hosting rights.

The 10 world champions crowned in Doha will be among the favorites to claim Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. The prestigious event also drew a visit from the Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.

Spreading the wealth

Despite the spike in cycling activity in the Middle East and presence of one of amateur boxing’s premier events, those two sports are not monopolizing the current sporting landscape in the region. Far from it, in fact. A multitude of other sporting competitions have also begun to make their presence felt in the Middle East.

In February, Iran will for the first time host a World Tour beach volleyball tournament on Kish Island. Among the expected competitors are a German pair that won two World Tour events last year and an American pair that ranks among the top 12 in the world.

Doha is already a regular stop on the volleyball tour, which holds the majority of its events in Brazil, the United States, and Western Europe. Hosting the competition in Iran illustrates the tour’s desire to expand into less-traditional hotbeds of the sport.

In October, Doha also welcomed many of the world’s best para-athletes when it hosted the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships. The event is para-track and field’s second most prestigious competition, behind only the Paralympic Games.

Star performances littered the event, including world records in both the 100 and 200 meters in the T44 class for single leg amputee Richard Browne of the United States. Marcus Rehm, a German long jumper who harbors hopes of competing in the Olympics in August, set a new world record in his event as well.

The point in writing about these accomplishments is not for some promotional gimmick, nor a deserved celebration of their work. Rather, it is an illustration of the caliber of events and athletes that are heading to the Middle East with increased frequency to compete.

Competitors who fight, ride, run and leap are all competing in the Middle East. Competitors both able-bodied and paralyzed are competing in the Middle East. Competitors rising through the ranks and earning crowning achievements are competing in the Middle East.

Sure, the Middle East has plenty of glamour, and plenty of stylish events that allow athletes and federations to revel in their successes. That’s maybe no better exemplified than with cycling’s awards presentations in October.

But what led into those awards? A bike race. A bike race that, in its very first year, drew a world champion. A bike race that meant something, and a bike race that didn’t need a glitzy show at the end to support it. Today, sporting events in the Middle East can stand on their own.

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