The Islamic Games: 'Love, friendship and humility'

7,000 athletes, 54 countries, 13 sports. But not one woman - this time

This surely has to be the most improbable dateline in the annals of sport. An event of near-Olympian proportions taking place in the holiest of citadels, where they flock in their millions to pray but where they are gathering now to watch thousands play.

This surely has to be the most improbable dateline in the annals of sport. An event of near-Olympian proportions taking place in the holiest of citadels, where they flock in their millions to pray but where they are gathering now to watch thousands play.

The first-ever Islamic Solidarity Games opened here this weekend with scintillating splendour, an event designed, say the hosts, to send to the world a message of "love, friendship and humility". A timely edict that uses sport as a platform for peace, not least in the Middle East.

A total of 7,000 athletes from 54 Islamic countries competing in 13 sports during the next fortnight at venues spread over four Saudi Arabian cities: Jeddah, Taif and the holy locations of Mecca and Medina. Other than the Olympic Games themselves, no bigger multi-sports extravaganza has ever been staged. The total organisational cost, over 100 million riyals (around £14m) has been underwritten by the Saudi government.

They promised us "something unique, something different". Well, it is certainly that. No alcohol, no women, and no Saudi women allowed to watch. Here is the closest a sports event has been to the days of the original Olympics in Ancient Greece, where females were also forbidden from playing and peeping.

To be fair, it is not a totally female-free zone. At the opening ceremony there was one woman in the royal box, accom-panying a foreign overseas dignitary, and among the hundreds of media representatives was a young female Egyptian journalist. But for the Saudis, even in the press box, it is strictly men only.

With the exception of the Rumble in the Jungle, it is hard to recall as anything quite as bizarre to this westerner's eye as this Dazzler in the Desert. As the only European journalists invited to witness these Games, photographer Simon Wilkinson and I were driven along the dusty road to Mecca - the much longer one from the cosmopolitan seaport of Jeddah that has to be used by non-Muslims - to the magnificent 40,000-capacity King Abdulaziz Stadium in Sharayaa, otherwise known as Sport City, from where Mecca's Grand Mosque could be seen distantly through the dusk.

For some of us old enough to remem-ber, a Friday night at Mecca years ago meant smooching around the local ballroom to the strains of Joe Loss. Here, another sort of song and dance was going on, a fascinating piece of Arabesque. As the searing sun dipped behind the dunes, and the athletes of 54 nations grouped behind their banners, more than 3,000 students re-enacted the religious, romantic and oft-times violent history of Mecca.

It was the late Prince Faisal who hit upon the idea of these Games 30 years ago as a way of bringing Islamic youth together. The project has finally been carried through to fruition by his brother, Prince Sultan. Sport in Saudi Arabia has long been the playground of princes, but is made possible on this scale by their patronage. Inevitably there was much bowing and scraping to be done before the running and jumping could begin.

Before the Games a conference of Islamic sports ministers was held in Jeddah, resolving "to show the world that Islam is a message of peace, and sport is a way of uniting all the Muslims to send that message".

Ahmed Khudidi, director of international relations for the Games, explained: "All the world thinks the Islamic youth are terrorists. We need to change that image." These Games have been formally endorsed by the International Olympic Committee, and participants have come from Mali and Malaysia, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan; footballers, fencers, runners and riders from Algeria to Yemen. Significantly, too, from Palestine, whose team, alongside that of Iraq and the Saudis themselves, received the biggest reception.

Most events are taking place in the comparative cool of the evening, after the call to prayers, but not all competitors and officials are Muslim. Around 25 per cent are of other religious denominations, though they must be nationals of an Islamic country.

As you would expect in a high-risk region - "Another terrorist bites the dust" screamed the front-page headline last week in the Arab News - security is high- profile, largely manned by Saudi's SAS, but media access to the watching royals for Prince Charles's "bloody people" brigade is surprisingly relaxed, even welcomed.

All this is being done with a prospective football World Cup bid in mind and, one suspects, much further down the line, perhaps an Olympic bid, too. Of course, that would not be possible while Saudi Arabia continues to exclude women from the playing field. But there are now clear indications that this is about to change, as indeed their rulers know it must if the nation is to take its place in the top echelons of world sport.

Theirs is now the only all-male bastion left in the Olympic movement, which the increasingly strident voices of female IOC members are not slow to point out. Among them is the world's foremost Muslim woman Olympian, Nawal el Moutawakel, the Moroccan who leapt over the hurdles in her homeland and is now moving up the IOC hierarchy as leader of the current Evaluation Commission for 2012.

I understand that the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, has now written to the Saudis on behalf of world sports governing bodies suggesting that this matter needs to be addressed, and indicating that by 2012 all nations in international sport must have female participation. The implication is clear. If they do not comply, one of the world's wealthiest sporting nations could face expulsion, just as South Africa did over their own form of discrimination.

So the Saudis know the time is approaching when cultural taboos must be removed for their sport to show its feminine side. Consequently we hear that some team sports, such as basketball and volleyball, are now being quietly introduced in private girls' schools.

So, one small step for womankind in a land where females still cannot drive on the roads, let alone off the first tee. But as we have indicated before, the Saudis, with all their resources, could probably stage the Olympics at the drop of a head-dress.

Meanwhile, what is happening in Mecca is more miracle than mirage. The Games were formally launched with what we were informed was "synchronised workfire"; the mother of all firework displays, held simultaneously in the four host cities. Truly an Arabian night to remember, even if it did lack a woman's touch.

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