The Muslim Olympics?

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

August 28, 2008

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

At the close of this year’s triumphant Olympics in China, about 958 medals were given out. About 532 to men, 396 to women, and 30 in “mixed” sports.

The year 2008 also saw Azerbaijan and Qatar bidding to host the 2016 Olympics. A clear and noble effort by these Muslim-majority countries to both offer their hospitality and shine on the international stage—despite being eliminated.

But perhaps another question that the Muslim world should be asking itself is how well it inspires and supports its young people to strive for the highest level of human achievement, in this case, in the area of sport?

Although the Muslim world, with its 1.4 billion citizens, makes up 22 per cent of humanity, it won a tiny 6 per cent of the Olympic medals. That’s right. Of the 958 medals given out at the games, only 60 went to citizens of Muslim-majority countries. Out of this, 44 to men and a mere 15 to women and one to open/mixed competitors. Women from Muslim-majority countries won only 4 per cent of the medals. And how did the 300 million citizens of the Arab world fare? They make up 5 per cent of the world’s population, so in theory they should have won 5 per cent of the medals. Instead they won less than 1 per cent, with Arab women winning only 0.5 per cent.

Which countries were the largest medal winners? Not surprisingly, the big and rich countries. China, which won 51 gold medals and a total of 100 medals, is the world’s largest country, with 1.4 billion citizens equalling the size of the Muslim world. And the United States of America, with 36 gold medals and a total of 110 medals, has a $14 trillion economy, or 21 per cent of the global economy. So clearly, size and wealth count for something.

Indeed, on a per capita basis, the US won almost 9 times more medals than the Muslim world. In fact, in the competition for the most gold medals, a single athlete, the American swimmer Michael Phelps, rivaled the entire Muslim world winning eight golds to the Muslim world’s nine.

Yet, some small countries with weak economies managed to shine: tiny Jamaica with 11 medals won 95 times more medals per capita than the Muslim world.

So, something is clearly wrong, when countries as diverse as communist China, capitalist US and poor Jamaica all doing dramatically better than the Muslim world.

The hard working citizens in the Muslim world don’t seem to lack the individual physical determination. And certainly the blame can’t be laid at the feet of Islam, with the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) himself, having been known to encourage society to teach their children swimming, archery and horse riding (all Olympic sports held at least since 1900). And the oil-producing nations certainly have the funds to sponsor athletes across the breadth of the Muslim world—or at least the Arab world. What seems to be missing is a sense that supporting this kind of human achievement can and should be at least somewhat of a priority in Muslim-majority countries.

Of course, the case could be made that the Arab and Muslim worlds should focus on other issues like addressing chronic unemployment, improving education, expanding democratic participation or bolstering the economy.


But countries the world over, have always had to contend with supporting and inspiring their athletes while pulling themselves out of poverty. Just think of the US and European participation in the Olympics during the great depression. From team sports such as basketball to individual sports such as swimming, the faces of the athletes, their stories, and their performances, bring the joy of human achievement to the world’s stage—and through them, the beauty of nations and cultures.

Although, it may be a while before the Muslim world hosts the Olympics again (Sarajevo, now the capital of largely Muslim Bosnia hosted the winter games in 1984), the Muslim world can, and I think should, make a concerted effort to encourage its youth to strive for greatness and in doing so, inspire others. A simple solution—if the vast region could find the political will—would be to combine the funds from wealthier Muslim nations with the talent from all to create a committee to fund athletes from across the region.

Indeed, imagine what it would be like if the Muslim world could simply double its medal count from 60 to 120 by the 2012 Olympics in London, thereby putting its performance on par with equally sized China.

Even better, imagine if the next eight-medal Olympian who grabbed global headlines wasn’t a Michael Phelps but instead a Mahmoud Mahmoud or an Aeisha Ahmad from Indonesia, Bangladesh or Egypt. Now that would certainly be inspirational in the Muslim world—and maybe even be transformative in its relationship with the rest of the world.

This opinion piece was also published by Daily Star and Al Rai.