Having been in Qatar for three months now, British ex-pat Sarah Whittington (pictured below) is starting to adjust to her new surroundings. She’s had her say for Sportsister on female sport participation in her new home, particularly with regards to running and this year’s Olympics…
For the first time ever, Qatar - the country of 2022 FIFA World Cup fame – is to send women to the Olympics. At least two women, a swimmer and a sprinter, will be representing the tiny Gulf-state after wild card qualification for the London 2012 Games, and more may yet be awarded with the honour.
Swimmer Nada Arkaji and runner Noor al-Malki will be on the medal trail this summer. And even though they are the first, there are plenty more ladies waiting in the wings for sporting glory.
Qatar may be making its money from oil and gas but it’s choosing to invest in sport. Aside from the FIFA World Cup, the country has Olympic host ambitions and is currently bidding for the 2020 Games. Part of this process means making sport more accessible to all, not least its own population.
As a Muslim country it was traditionally quite difficult for women to access sport but thanks to more ladies-only initiatives it’s getting easier and is more accepted. A whole section of the world-leading Academy for Sport Excellence, Aspire, is dedicated to women with plenty of fitness advice and classes for all.
Like many desert countries, where summer heat brings outdoor sports to a halt, exercise has not featured heavily for Qataris in recent years. And with a rapidly westernised diet, diabetes and obesity-related problems are an increasing issue. The authorities are trying to be proactive however with schemes to generate more interest in exercise, especially educating and inspiring kids to stay moving and to make healthy eating choices. Most recently the Emir decreed the second Tuesday in February should be a national holiday for sporting activities. That’s right there’s a day off for you to go to the gym! In reality many of the country’s largest companies organised family orientated exercise schemes.
As a western ex-pat woman based in Qatar it’s fairly accepted that we will participate in exercise, regardless of the heat! And as running is cheap and accessible, this is often the favoured form of activity. Respecting local custom does mean wearing a longer t-shirt and below the knee shorts when out and about, but this is actually no bad thing under a burning sun. The Doha Bay Running Club meets all year round, even in the height of summer, although long runs are cut short, especially during Ramadan. This is when Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset. In Qatar it’s also unacceptable for non-Muslims to drink water in public during this period. The club has only been in existence for little over a year but already has over 200 members, with around 50 regular women runners – pretty good from an original female membership of one!
Being a desert country, the place isn’t exactly designed with pedestrians in mind. Roads are planned to get cars as close to buildings as possible so that, in the 50 degree Celcius plus heat in the summer, it’s easy to move between air-conditioned car and destination. Pavement space is therefore limited so you have to run on the road. This is also the land of the 4X4, where London’s Chelsea tractors look small against the sand dune bashing vehicles driven here. As a runner it can be tricky and you have to be cautious. Running in a group is definitely safer and perhaps why the Doha Bay Running Club’s long Friday morning run at 5.30am is so popular. Yes, that’s 5.30am! There’s no lie-in if you want to run. The early start avoids some of the summer’s heat, before the sun gets too high in the sky, and as Friday is the holy day the roads are quieter.
There’s still an issue sourcing ladies’ sports clothing in Qatar, however. Wide-legged yoga trousers are pretty easy to find, as are crop tops and swimming costumes, but it’s impossible to find sports bras, women’s compression clothing and many brands of running shoe. This can be solved by a flight to Dubai or stocking up on trips home. Some web suppliers will now also ship to the country.
Competitive running is still rare and there isn’t the option to race every weekend, indeed, most races entail a flight to another country! This does however mean there’s a large supportive club contingent at all races, with us girls ganging together to encourage each other round. Our results tend to reflect this too, with many new challenges undertaken and PBs set.
Qatar’s motto is ‘anything is possible’ so with this in mind, the world had better watch out for the Olympic bound ladies – they are ready to win!
Sarah Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Sarah Whittington is a journalist and CYQ Level 3 Personal Trainer, currently residing in Qatar. She has completed numerous half marathons and several marathons.
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