With news breaking that Brazil has beaten out the U.S. for a chance to host the 2016 Olympic Games, I’m inspired to imagine the day Saudi Arabia might be in the running.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. After all, just last month the country inaugurated a new world-class research university — reported to have the world’s 10th-largest endowment and its sixth-fastest supercomputer. There are of course problems for the school, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology — named for the country’s reform-minded monarch — but the fact the country is now home to such an ambitious, co-ed institution is a giant step. And a giant step in the direction of folks who wave a wand at places like Chicago and Rio.
Why care about the Olympics? There was an energetic story about the 2016 decision by NYT reporter Richard Sandomir, who argued that Chicago would be the big TV money-maker, Rio would be the most fun, while Sochi — that weird corner of Russia, which is home to the upcoming winter contest — would mainly be a bummer.
Lost in that kind of story — and most of the giddy discussion of the games I’ve seen in recent days — is any real talk about the Olympics’ transformative power. After all, I think it’s unarguably good for all of us that the international eye will soon be trained on host-country Russia. How helpful it would be for other dubious regimes to one day earn the right to have such scrutiny! [I’ll look forward to such hoopla someday touching an Olympic Baghdad (2056!), Kabul (2076?), and perhaps even Mogadishu (3016…)]
So what about Riyadh 2036? Saudi’s not yet ready to handle sport’s premiere international gathering — for instance, what would female gymnasts wear? But for now, I can give you a preview of what things are like when people here gather to watch sports.
This spring, I attended a World Cup qualifying match between Saudi Arabia and… North Korea. It’s hard to imagine two more fearsome opponents — especially for an American — but 90 minutes into the experience (as reported in a piece I originally published in The Review, the weekly cultural supplement to The National) I had a glimmer of how normal things can be here, and also how sad.
Rihan told me to meet him at a car park near the stadium around 6.00pm. As I drew closer in my humble Corolla, I noticed that several beat-up cars driving around me had a door, trunk lid or maybe both side mirrors spray painted green: the color of the Falcons, the national football team. Saudi kids leaned out the windows, waving the national flag. Read the rest of this entry »