Also, like many Arabs, Bahrainis are obsessively reserved about their bodies. Throughout the Gulf, there's no such thing as a shower room: showers are private stalls with doors. "It's an improvement, though," says Elmer Kortemeyer, who for two years was the sports therapist for Bahrain while on leave from the University of Northern Iowa. "They used to come dressed for a game and go home to bathe." Kortemeyer adds that groin injuries are another problem. Because of the athletes' embarrassment, such injuries often go unreported until they become dangerously complicated.
The modesty required of women can impair a whole sport. In liberal Bahrain, which encourages women's track, basketball, volleyball and table tennis—major breakthroughs in the Gulf—one doesn't encounter such strictures. But in Kuwait, for instance, girls must play volleyball in full warmup suits.
Another difficulty for Western coaches arises from the fact that many Arabs have little sense of the Western idea of training and practice. The emphasis is on individual effort. They do not comprehend the idea of team spirit, and that to win as a team means practice as a team.
"But it's a big mistake to think that, because they're modest or don't understand training, Arab athletes lack heart," Kortemeyer says. "I've had kids come to me with year-old ankle injuries because they didn't know that a trainer could fix them up. The injuries must have been terribly painful to compete on, but they never whimpered."
At the 1979 Gulf team handball championships, in Kuwait, Kortemeyer's assessment proved accurate. Team handball is a bruising game, but no one shied away from the contact. The Iraqi and Saudi finalists, playing in 95° heat, were clearly tough, and they behaved pretty much like any team athletes in the world. They talked back to the referee, slammed each other on the shoulders to celebrate goals and pulled phony injuries to stop the clock.
The crowd was also similar to any at a championship event. The Iraqi fans carried flags and banners and chanted, banging on drums and clapping hands as they did so. Separated from them by a high barbed-wire fence, the Saudis flown in for the game wailed right back. The wide corridor between the factions of about 3,000 each was patrolled by Kuwaiti soldiers—indicating perhaps that the new intra-Arab relationships Bahrain's Shaikh Esa speaks of have a way to go.
There are seldom any women at Arab sports events other than a few black-veiled nut vendors. Crowds are male, as lazy-looking as baseball fans, most with their feet up and their sandals off—until, of course, something happens. In the middle of the stands is the obligatory VIP platform, which is carpeted and lined with lounge chairs and small tables.
On the platform during the handball championship loomed the giant form of Big Mo, 41-year-old Mohammed Ali Abul, a 6'2" Bahraini businessman, former star soccer player and head of his country's handball federation. "Sports in the Gulf are in worse shape than they were 20 years ago," he boomed, flipping his gutra (headcloth) over his shoulders. "Everything is travel. It's a great accomplishment if the basketball team goes to Turkey for three days and it costs $120,000. The more you spend, the more successful the trip. Madness! And what the team did in Turkey? It's not for publication. But it wasn't very Muslim, I can tell you.
"The other federation heads think I'm crazy. They say the only way to attract top athletes is to make a lot of trips. The money's better spent in the schools." Big Mo laughs uproariously as an Iraqi player upends a Saudi defender.
In the streets and out on the desert, soccer is the national pastime of the Gulf countries. It is played wherever and whenever there's time and the heat isn't stifling. At dusk in Bahrain's Isa Town, the kids start trickling out of the houses and head for the soccer field, a piece of hard-baked desert with old two-by-fours rigged as goals. Some are dressed in robes and some in Six-Million-Dollar-Man T shirts—which may not be a joke here—and most of them are barefoot. They do wheelies on their bikes as they pedal toward the field. Once there, they go at soccer loudly and furiously. As a rule they display a light touch on the ball and a tendency to showboat and to disregard team play.