Youth Olympics: hoping to break down barriers

The inaugural event and Jihan Elmidany, who leads the Egyptian delegation into today's opening ceremony, wants more Muslim girls to take an interest in sport.

SINGAPORE // When Jihan Elmidany leads the Egyptian delegation into today's opening ceremony of the inaugural Youth Olympics, it will be a historic moment for her country, while five UAE athletes will also be breaking new ground by competing at the tournament. The 18-year-old pentathlete will become the first woman from Egypt to serve as a flag bearer at an Olympic event. And if she wins a medal as expected in the competition that includes swimming, shooting, fencing and running, she would also be the first woman from her country to do so at an Olympic event.

Elmidany said she hopes her prominent role will inspire girls across the Muslim world to take up sports. "I'm hoping I can be a good role model," Elmidany said yesterday as she walked through the athletes' village. "I want to prove that the veil does not have to prevent girls from doing anything." Meanwhile, Sheikh Ali Bin Abdullah bin Majid al Qasimi (equestrian), Salim Mattar Ali Rashid (shooting) and Saif Ibrahim al Hamadi (sailing) will be competing for the UAE's boys team after all three were given wildcards. For the girls, Hanan al Balushi has successfully qualified in the judo competition while Haya Sameer Juma has also been given a wildcard entry in the Taekwondo.

Al Qasimi, whose horse Pearl Monarch underwent inspection yesterday at the Singapore Turf Club, will be the first of the Emirates' Young Olympians to get involved in the action. The 18-year-old will ride the thoroughbred mare on Monday for the first time in a jumping training session, before competing in the first round of the competition on Wednesday." The Youth Olympics, which runs until August 26, features about 3,600 competitors aged between 14 to 18 from 204 countries competing in the same 26 sports on the current Summer Olympics programme. Elmidany's starring role comes at a time when girls across the Muslim world are making historic progress in sports, starting football leagues and competing in sports such as boxing and wrestling that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. But many girls still face insurmountable hurdles in trying to compete, from societies that frown on sports to families that would rather keep their daughters at home.

Sharif A El-Erain, the vice president of the Egyptian Federation of Modern Pentathlon, acknowledges it is much harder to recruit girls than boys and is hoping Elmidany's success will bring the federation more attention, more money and more female athletes. "For me, that is a dream," he said of an Egyptian woman winning a medal. "We came some close in the last Olympics so if we can make it here it would be great. It will get us more recognition."

Most athletes spent yesterday training and mingling with teammates at the sprawling village housed at a local university. While Elmidany was talking of making history, most athletes had their sights on more modest goals - winning gold, reaching personal bests and making friends. Critics have derided the newly-created event as little more than a summer camp and it has come under fire for a lack of support from local Singaporeans. But there was no sign from any of the athletes that they were taking the event lightly.

"This is the closest thing to the Olympics. It's the junior Olympics," said Amber Bryant-Brock, a 16-year-old American 400-metre hurdler. "This is big. I'm anxious and I'm ready to compete. It's scary because it's anybody's race." Simone Meyer, a 17-year-old South African discus thrower, called the competition a "road to 2012", referring to the London Olympics. "It will be a great experience," she said. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime. You will learn so much. If you don't have this experience, you'll never know what to expect."

* Associated Press