People Who Blow Themselves Up

My pool in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

The self-destruction that goes on in Saudi Arabia is truly remarkable. They bomb Yemen mainly because the people there worship the same God but choose to do it in a slightly different way. They encourage the USA and Israel to join them in destroying Iran for the same reason. They open one movie theatre and tell the world it is a glowing example of liberal freedom. They are about to allow women to drive and announce the fact as though they are active participants in the “Me Too” movement. Permission for women to be spectators at a football match is publicised as the ultimate step in gender rights.

Meanwhile of course no Saudi women can swim in their public pools. They certainly cannot compete in a Saudi swim meet. I was stunned to see women’s changing rooms and toilets in their three German supplied Olympic pools. The only thing missing was women.

The self-destructive rules that govern Saudi society are a wonder to behold. One in particular pisses me off just now. In three months the Asia Games will take place in Indonesia. They will run from 18 August to 2 September. There is a full six day swim meet in the 8,630 seat Jakarta Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex. The reason I am acutely aware of the event is because for the year I was coaching in Saudi Arabia the Asian Games were the centre of their competitive universe.

“We have to do well in the Asian Games,” I was told.

I was ordered to prepare a plan that got swimmers ready for Jakarta in 2018. So I did that. I was confident I had two swimmers, Loai and Eyad, who could be ready to perform well. There was a problem with Eyad. He was born in Syria. No matter what the reward, Saudis object to anyone not born inside Saudi Arabia representing the country. God knows why they are so precious about a massive expanse of hostile sand; just another example of blowing themselves up.

However there was a slim chance that, along with women driving cars, Eyad might be allowed some of the freedoms accepted as normal in the rest of the world. My plan was approved and we began to prepare.

And then the royal family had a fight. The swimming prince was overthrown and a new swimming prince took his place. The New Zealand born CEO was hopeless; over-paid and paralysed, he did nothing. While all that was going on none of us got paid for three months. Eventually the pay was sorted. However the Asian Games plans, approved by the previous regime, were discarded. Clearly that had nothing to do with their benefit to sport in the Kingdom. They had been initiated by the previous prince. They had to go. As I say, yet another self-inflicted bomb.

In this case the destruction was total. I completed my contract and caught the first Emirate’s flight back to Auckland. Eyad decided he’d seen enough Saudi and Syrian terrorism. A month later he caught the same flight and applied to Immigration New Zealand for refugee status. And Loai simply recognised the futility of the fight and moved on to something else.

Eyad is now happily settled in New Zealand. He is teaching for the Millennium Swim School and is preparing for the Open Championships beginning in Auckland on the 2 July. His first competition will be in the Golden Homes Swim Fest this coming weekend. We will see how he gets on. His training is going well. In the thirty weeks since he arrived in New Zealand he has swum 1423 kilometres. His training times have improved. A set of 20×100 that used to average 1.07 is now being swim in 1.01. How that converts into his racing times we are about to find out.

In the meantime what is happening in Saudi Arabia? We know they lost Loai and Eyad. But what did they gain. That’s an easy question. The answer is nothing. They have a few young swimmers who will fly to Jakarta as experience for the next Games in 2022. And in 2022 they will take another group of young Saudis to the Asian Games as preparation for 2026. Failure, it seems, is a learned habit and the Saudis have learned it well.

I guess I shouldn’t care. Loai is happy. Eyad is swimming well. Who cares what’s happening in a Saudi desert? No one really, not even me – except that I still feel slightly frustrated about two things.

First, I dislike the feeling of a job half done. The fact I’m still helping Eyad softens my frustration but the Asian Games are about to begin and Loai and Eyad are not going to be there.

And second, the magnitude of the Saudi waste is annoying. They have the best pools; there is an office block full of admin staff; they are given more money than you could wave a stick at and nothing to show for it. It goes to show the futility of trying to buy success. If other things are not in place all the money in the world is not going to help – especially when your sport is permanently strapped into a high explosive suicide vest.

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