DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Asian Games have never been bountiful to Middle East nations. They routinely trail far behind the likes of China in the medal tallies and only a few even crack the top 10.
But this time around, there is optimism from Qatar to Palestine that team's in the region can improve on their gold medal hauls at the games which start Nov. 12 at Guangzhou in southern China. Prospects for the men's football teams — Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar— are running especially high following their dominance of the tournament in 2006.
Qatar beat Iraq for gold in 2006 while Iran held off South Korea to take bronze.
"We will try to do our best. But it's difficult now to say we will keep the gold because there are many teams that make are good preparations for this competition," said Ali al-Mannai, the manager for Qatar Olympic football team which will play in China.
Al-Mannai said the team will probably not be as strong this time around because many senior players are preparing for the Gulf Cup later this month in Yemen and are unavailable for the Asian Games.
"It's important to win gold at the Asian Games but there are even more important goals like qualifying for the 2012 summer Olympics," he said.
Iraq isn't even sending a team to Guangzhou due to internal issues with the game's administration.
It's not football alone that has countries predicting good results. Several have legitimate contenders on the track as well as in combat sports such as taekwondo and wrestling.
Qatar, which grabbed the most medals among Middle Eastern nations at 32 when it hosted the 2006 games in Doha, is putting its hopes on athletics, though it is sending one of the biggest delegations in the region at 318.
Qatar has invested heavily in athletes over the years, building state-of-the art training centers as part of a bid to become the region's hub for international track and field competitions. It hosted the World Indoors in March and the opening meet of the Diamond League season and has turned to athletics as just one way to showcase the tiny Gulf nation.
Among its hopes for medals are Samuel Francis Adelebari in the 100 meters, Femi Seun Oguonde in the 200, Essa Esmail Rasheed in the 10,000 and Mubarak Hassan Shami in the marathon.
"All the people in Qatar are looking for track and field athletes to do the best," said Abdullah Al Zini, president Qatar Athletics Federation. "We have a good chance to maybe get four golds if everything goes well."
Bahrain, which is sending 85 athletes to the games, has set a goal of winning seven golds — the same as in 2006 — and is targeting athletics, sailing and taekewondo. Among its most promising athletes are Maryam Jamal in the 800- and 1,500-meters, Mahboub Ali in the 5,000 and 10,000 as well as Abdulrahim Abdul Hamid in taekwondo.
Sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara, one of the few female runners wearing a specially-designed head scarf, won gold for Bahrain in the 200 at Doha.
Iraq will send 48 athletes to participate in 12 events, including swimming, judo, badminton, archery and gymnastics. The war-torn country plans to make the strongest show in track and field with 15 athletes competing, including four women.
Sectarian violence, unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion has claimed the lives of many Iraqi athletes, coaches and staff during fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias. The country's sports institutions have also been plagued with leadership problems as Iraq's Shiite elite, ruling the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated autocracy seven years ago, started a campaign to purge sports' governing bodies, including the National Olympic Committee, of officals considered too close to the deposed regime.
"Despite the harsh situation in our country and the difficulties athletes are faced with in training, we believe we have the talent and the ambition to win several medals," said Adil Fadhil, the secretary general of the Iraqi Olympic Committee.
Lebanon is hoping for good results in the 200 and from taekwondo star Michel Samaha who earned a bronze at the Youth Olympics in Singapore.
Jordan, meanwhile, wants to make its mark on the mat and is hoping to bring home at least 10 medals — two more than it won in 2006. Among the stars for Jordan could be wrestler Yahya Abu Tabeekh who won a silver at Doha.
"We have strong athletes in wrestling and taekwondo and these two sports are our traditional strong points," said Rana al-Saeed, an official in the Jordanian Olympic Committee. "We have big hopes that we will achieve good results in the Asia games."
Even the impoverished Palestinian territories ares hoping to make its mark at these Asian Games.
It didn't win a medal at the Doha 2006 Games but that hasn't dampened the spirit of these athletes, who often must train in inferior facilities and suffer travel complications because of Israeli restrictions.
The football team, for example, is made up entirely of players from the West Bank because of the problems of trying to unite West Bank and players from Gaza — which has endured a punitive, three-year border blockade.
The team's best hope for a medal lies with Zahreyeh Abdul-Razek, a Ukrainian of Palestinian descent who will take part in the judo competition. There are also Palestinian women swimmers who hold expectations of a podium finish.
"We have many obstacles before us, mainly the geographical divide between the West Bank and Gaza. Athletes are supposed to train together, but there the camps are divided into two," said Fathi Joudeh, secretary-general of the Olympic Committee in Gaza. "But we are determined to participate with the biggest number possible so we can represent Palestine." - AP
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