Syrian athletes may yet attend Arab Games

Damascus's Olympic chief says boycott could be rescinded if the Arab League ends Syria's suspension.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
November 16, 2011 05:51
4 minute read.
Syrian, Jordanian boxers fight - Arab Games [file]

Syrian and Jordanian boxers at the Pan-Arab Games 311 (R). (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

 
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Syrian athletes may show up at the upcoming Arab Games despite their country’s boycott if the Arab League reverses its decision to suspend Damascus over its lethal crackdown on protesters, the secretary-general of the Syrian Olympic Committee told The Media Line.

“If the Arab League ...stands besides Syria as a land and as a people and respects our feeling that we want our country to be more stable and more secure, then of course we would change our mind and may take part,” Feras Mouala told The Media Line in a telephone interview.

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Mouala spoke shortly after a joint statement issued by the Syrian Olympic Committee and the General Sports Federation announced that Syrian athletes would not be participating in the high profile Arab Games next month in Qatar.

The boycott was issued as a gesture of protest against the Arab League’s move, but some analysts said it was also likely prompted by the turmoil in the country that is likely complicating efforts to over field a full complement of athletes. The eight-month-old rebellion has caused the deaths of over 3,500 people and has paralyzed day-to-day life in some cities

“We assure you that this decision is not the decision of the leadership or any authority in Syria, but of the athletes and the Syrian Olympic Committee itself,” Mouala said. “The sportsmen in Syria requested this, saying they cannot respect those who are conspiring against us and that they didn’t feel comfortable competing with people who might be conspiring against them.”

Huge demonstrations swept through Damascus over the weekend in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad after the 22-member Arab League decided to suspend Syria for not implementing their plan to bring about a cease-fire with the opposition. The Arab League has since called an emergency summit in Morocco on Wednesday to reconsider the suspension.  



The suspension was conditioned on Assad’s implementation of a November 2 accord that required Damascus to release detainees, withdraw the military from urban areas, allow free movement for observers and the media, and negotiate with the opposition.

The statement released by the state-run SANA news agency said the Syrian athletes would “adhere to resistance and confront the conspiracy against Syria.” It added that the Arab League decision was part of “plots aiming at undermining Syria’s position and subjugating the entire Arab region.”

The games are slated to begin on December 9 in Doha and will feature some 8,000 athletes from 22 countries competing in soccer, swimming, athletics, gymnastics and basketball. Earlier, Arab Games officials had insisted that Syria would participate despite its suspension from the Arab League.

"They will participate and we are welcoming all athletes from the Arab nations," Abdulla Al-Mulla, acting director for ceremonies at the 22-country Doha Games, was quoted as saying by Reuters. "We never mix politics with sport, so they are most welcome to come to Doha. …The doors are always open for all the Arab athletes."

Still, the turbulent realm of sports in the Arab world, particularly since the outbreak of revolutions in the Arab Spring, have proven it to be a major battleground for political expression and not always under the control of regimes, said James Dorsey, who writes a blog on Middle East sports.

Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told The Media Line that few truly cared if Syria showed up at the Arab Games.

“The Syrians simply want to make a statement and, indeed, they weren’t going to perform very well anyway,” Dorsey said. “In Syria, soccer players are playing a role in the revolt, particularly in Homs.”

Syrian security forces, for example, have arrested their national soccer team’s goalkeeper Mosab Balhous for participating in anti-government protests.

“Syria may have ordered a boycott in order not to be embarrassed by defecting athletes or ones outspoken against the Assad regime,” Dorsey said. “Can you trust these guys?"

“That is a double-edged sword. Because some of these guys may decide that they are not going home….. There is a risk element in this for the regime. [The boycott] is a symbolic thing. At the end of the day it is a political decision. Of course they can change their mind. If Bashar [Assad] decides there is political mileage in going then they will go.”

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