chapter  3
16 Pages

Syria and the Olympics: National Identity on an International Stage

ByAndrea L. Stanton

Introduction Since becoming independent from French mandatory control in 1946, Syria has sent athletes to every summer Olympic Games – with the exception of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, when it joined with neighbours Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon in a boycott to protest foreign involvement in the Suez Crisis. A relatively small country – at 71,500 square miles, it is larger than neighbours Jordan and Lebanon but smaller than Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Oman and Yemen – Syria had as of June 2013 an estimated 22.5 million people, with roughly 90% Arabs and the rest Armenian, Kurdish and other minorities, making it a mid-range country population-wise for the region. Religiously, the country’s population is approximately 75% Sunni Muslim, 15% Shii (including Ismaili) Muslims and Druze, 10% Christian, with a handful of Jews remaining from Syria’s historical Jewish population.1 While Syria joined the Olympic community less than two years after attaining independence, it was able to send only one athlete to the 1948 London games: diver Zouheir Chourbagi, who placed 10th in the final round of the 10-metre dive and later worked for Syria’s Ministry of Education.2 Yet while Syria has consistently

t i , iversity of Denver, Denver, CO, USA

participated in the summer Olympic Games, it has taken home only three Olympic medals since 1948: silver in 1984, gold in 1996 and bronze in 2004. This disconnect between the country’s commitment to Olympic participation and its ‘return on investment’ with respect to the number of medals won suggests that for Syria, as for many other smaller states around the world, Olympic participation proved meaningful in other ways. (The relatively greater medal counts of states with similar GDPs and populations sizes suggest that Syria’s low medal count may also have reflected domestic factors, whether limited programme funding, military dominance of sports training or insufficient infrastructure – all subjects worthy of investigation in future research.)

Joining the Olympic community in 1948 gave the newly independent Syria, with its weak nationalist government, instant recognition from the global community of sovereign states.As Syria matured and its government (and governing ideologies) shifted with the multiple coups of the 1950s, culminating in the short-lived alliance with Egypt and ending with the 1963 Baathist coup, Syria’s involvement in international sporting events consistently reflected and reinforced the country’s political positions. Known officially as the SyrianArabRepublic, the country’s secular, Arab socialist identity included the promotion of sports at the individual, national, regional and international level as a way to construct strong, healthy, modern citizens – a heritage that stretched back to the nationalist youth andmen’s organisations of the Mandate era. While generally sending fewer than 20 athletes to any Olympic competition,3 the Baathist government’s secular ideology may be seen, for example, in its early and consistent inclusion of male and female athletes from Christian and Muslim backgrounds in Olympic cohorts – most notably Ghada Shouaa, an Arab Christian who won the gold medal for the women’s heptathlon at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia. It may also be seen in the government’s emphasis on youth sports and physical education – with the latter specifically mentioned in Syria’s constitution.4