Olympics-Ambitious Saudis look to homegrown talent for future success


(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia will look to homegrown talent to expand its base of elite athletes rather than follow its neighbours down the path of naturalising foreigners, the media chief of the Saudi Olympic Committee told Reuters.

Funding from the country's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which manages more than $700 billion in assets, has rocketed the country to major-player status in world of sport over a few short years.

Developing talent is a longer-term project not easily accelerated by financial muscle, and Saudi Arabia will need more than the 33 athletes it sent to the Tokyo Olympics if it wants to host the Summer Games.

Qatar trod a similar investment-led path of development, culminating in the hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup, but with citizens making up only 10% of its tiny population, it had to be creative about producing sporting talent.

The result was a policy in which athletes from around the world were offered cash and limited citizenship to compete for Qatar and supplement local talent.

Five of the seven athletes who have won Olympic medals for Qatar were born outside the emirate, and other Gulf nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have followed suit in the pursuit of sporting success.

"Naturalisation is an issue that is ultimately subject to circumstances and the stage you have reached," said Abdulaziz Albaqous, director of corporate communications and international relations at the Saudi Olympic Committee.

"But we prefer to invest in the future, in the generation that already exists to produce champions through a successful sports system," he added. "We always tend to produce future champions from within society."

Saudi Arabia's population of some 37 million dwarfs those of its neighbours, and Albaqous is convinced that there will be plenty of talent unearthed by various initiatives, some already under way.

"INCREASING POPULATION"

He pointed to the success of a Schools League for seven sports and the annual Saudi Games, which launched in 2022 and had more than 8,000 male and female participants in last year's edition.

"The kingdom has a vast geographical area, cultural diversity, and a sufficient and increasing population. You are working with future generations," Albaqous said.

"Of course, there is more than one initiative to enhance participation and have more athletes and players.

"There is support to local sports federations to increase the number of registered players, support to clubs to give them financial incentives to open the way to different sports, to increase players and the number of people taking part in sport."

Albaqous said participation in sport in Saudi Arabia had already increased dramatically during the last decade.

"The percentage of people practicing sports in the country has increased from 13 percent in 2015 to more than 48 percent in 2022," he said.

Female athletes were for many years an untapped reservoir of talent in the conservative Islamic state, with girls banned from participating in sport at public schools until 2017 and women not allowed into sports stadiums until the following year.

The policies were reversed under the influence of Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family and now the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

This year, taekwondo athlete Donia Abu Talib became the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Olympics rather than be granted a spot through regional or IOC quotas.

"The qualification of a Saudi athlete shortly after activating women's sports project in the kingdom is a great indicator of the competitiveness of sports in Saudi Arabia," Albaqous said.

(Reporting by Ashraf Hamed Atta; Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Gerry Doyle)

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