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The name of the game is petrosports
J.D. Reed
November 17, 1980
Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey
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November 17, 1980

The Name Of The Game Is Petrosports

Golf champ Mohammed Ahmed isn't the only athlete hitting it big out on the Arabian desert. Oil funds lavish facilities for sports from falconry to ice hockey

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"What the Saudis are doing," says Craig Menees, until recently manager of Arabian Chevron, "is the equivalent of starting to build the entire athletic plants of all the Big Eight and Big Ten schools from scratch, and at current prices, and with at least half of them under construction at one time. It's dazzling."

Saudi Arabia, which is the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi, has a native population of only about four million. What, one wonders, is the point of such lavish spending for sport? The question could be asked of Bahrain as well. At his diwan (royal office) in West Rifaa, a few miles from Manama, Crown Prince Shaikh Hamed bin Isa al-Khalifa, a smiling and imposing presence in his Air Force general's uniform, says, "There is no hope for a man to keep his morality without a strong body. So the Koran instructs us. And we would like to show the world that we are competitive, that we can win. We Arabs are patient. We started with the Arab Games. Then the Asian. Then the Olympics."

The 30-year-old prince, a graduate of Britain's Sandhurst who spent a year at the U.S. general staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., is also Bahrain's minister of defense. A seat-of-the-pants helicopter pilot, a crack shot and an accomplished horseman, he knows something about competition. But in the Arab world, traditional beliefs keep colliding with modern realities. The amir himself shuns his stable of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes and wheels around in a four-door Chevrolet Caprice because he trusts the suspension. He was aghast when his son wanted to fly airplanes. But after the prince and a test pilot from Messer-schmitt-Boelkow-Blohm had convinced him that a helicopter was not an airplane, the prince was grudgingly allowed to get a special model with backup engines and rotors. He flies it almost every day, delighting in whipping over Bahrain's only "mountain," a 450-foot crag of limestone jutting up from the desert floor.

Like most Gulf countries, Bahrain depends on the West not only for its sports hardware but also for its advisers and coaches. Iraq works with Eastern-bloc imports, the emirates and Saudi Arabia with the British. Bahrain has called in Dr. Thomas P. Rosandich, 49, president and founder of the United States Sports Academy of Mobile, Ala., a nonprofit, non-governmental group that since 1976 has had a multimillion-dollar annual contract with Bahrain for sports development.

The hearty Rosandich is a former athletic director at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus, an ex-Marine captain who is awakened each morning by the corps hymn programmed into his clock-calculator, and a track coach who has worked in 52 countries during the last 25 years. "If we do our job here right," he says, "we'll be out of business. We don't regard our people as coaches but as advisers. The ideal is for the Bahrainis to take over every coaching and sports-medicine job." The academy has 17 coaches and advisory personnel living in Bahrain and also supplies experts, on short-term loan, in everything from the pentathlon to stress statistics and from desert allergies to orthopedic surgery.

Rosandich deals with the shy Bahrain-is as if they and he were fellow Rotarians. Even while observing Arab etiquette in respect to titles and precedence, he is liable to drape an arm across royal shoulders and boom, "Well, Your Excellency, how's the doubles game? Hot competition this afternoon. Better get out of that robe and into your shorts." Fortunately, such bonhomie tends to send princes into fits of delighted giggles.

Rosandich is the Billy Graham of push-ups, the Rex Humbard of stress testing, an old-fashioned, red-white-and-blue sports missionary. "The academy is providing essential services for Bahrain," he says. "If we can get a few top-notch Arabs to look on the U.S. with favor, what does that hurt? About all we can offer is our expertise in sports and telling the truth.

"When I first came out here, the thinking in the Gulf was, 'How can we buy a gold medal?' I told them flat out it was impossible. You can buy the Dorchester Hotel in London, but you can't buy Olympic gold.

"We started testing Bahraini youth, and sure enough, over 50% of the kids couldn't do a single chin-up. The backbone of our program is the schools. With such a small population base, that's where you must build for the future. And all the Gulf countries have adopted the idea. Youth is the answer."

Perhaps, but coaching Arab youth presents unique problems. In Isa Town, a modern, planned community of 25,000 near Manama, Elwood (Woody) Duernberger, a former University of South Alabama tennis player and coach, now Bahrain's national coach in that sport, points to a group of boys 12 to 16. "There's the national team," he beams. On bright blue-surfaced courts at dusk (it's too hot to play during the day), the boys are hitting the ball passably well. "The older ones have little hand-eye coordination because they grow up playing soccer," says Woody. "So we're going for the younger kids, where the muscles can be grooved in more easily."

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