Despite its oil wealth Libya has never won an Olympic medal. The country's leading hope for London (albeit a longshot) was former African taekwondo champion Ezzideen Tlish, who competed at the 2004 and '08 Games. But Tlish, who worked as an anaesthesia technician in Tripoli, was aiding injured rebel soldiers on Aug. 28, 2011, the day they took control of the city, when he was killed by gunfire. Tlish's younger brother Mohamed won a silver medal in taewkondo at the Arab Games but, still in mourning with his family, he missed a berth in London.
DURING THE Arab Games athletes were checking Facebook and Twitter for news from home. On the evening that Iraqi sprinter Danaa Abdul-razzaq set a national record (11.88 seconds) to win the women's 100 meters, the U.S. declared an official end to the war in Iraq. By the time she took silver in the 200 four days later, sectarian violence was again flaring up in Baghdad. Still, Abdul-razzaq's training situation is better than it was four years ago, when she often had to ride through a fusillade of gunfire on the way to practice. She is Shiite and her coach, Yousif Abdul-Rahman, is Sunni. In Doha, through a translator, Abdul-razzaq said simply, "Sport brings together."
But Arab Spring pride occasionally boiled over in Doha. One of the few sports that drew crowds was swimming, and the main draw was 2008 Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle champion Oussama Mellouli, the top athlete in the Arab world. Mellouli won 15 gold medals in Doha and elicited wild cheers each time he strolled at poolside in his I [heart] FREE tunisia warmup shirt. The battle for medals between Tunisia and Egypt, however, led to shoving and shouting in the stands. By the end of the games, fans from the two countries had to use separate entrances into the swimming venue.
TO CALL most Olympic sports in the Arab world niche would be to elevate a sidewalk crack to a canyon. Building athletic tradition takes time, and when, for instance, a country has few pools, it can be difficult even to begin. Libya's best swimmer, 20-year-old butterflyer Sofyan El Gadi, will compete in London, but he trains mostly in Canada. Mellouli went to USC and is still based there. Tunisia's several outstanding fencers train primarily in France.
Pictured on these pages are only athletes who live and train primarily in the country they will represent in London. That, in itself, is no mean feat. Some athletes paid the price for staying home; in the postrevolution chaos, many sports federations struggled to continue providing even modest financial support. Hamdi Dhouibi, Tunisia's best decathlete, who stood guard with a wooden stick in front of his family's house during the revolution, lost funding and couldn't afford to keep his coach. He did not qualify for London.
These images tell—conspicuously—another story of missed opportunity. Athletic prospects for women, while plentiful in some Arab countries, such as Morocco, are scant in others. Saudi Arabia had 202 athletes in Doha, but none was a woman. Under pressure from the IOC, Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar will finally take a step forward, however symbolic, in London by sending women to the Olympics for the first time: two Saudis (an 800-meter runner and a judoka), one Bruneian (a hurdler) and four Qataris (a shooter, a sprinter, a swimmer and a table-tennis player). The Qatari shooter, Bahiya al-Hamad, 19, will carry her country's flag in the opening ceremony.
Amr Seoud was recruited by a wealthier Arab country (he won't say which) to change his citizenship and join its team, but chose to stay in Egypt even though prospective sponsors pulled back when the revolution broke out.
"It means too much to me right now to switch," says Seoud, whose cellphone wallpaper shows him in a 200-meter heat in Beijing, racing next to Usain Bolt. "I want to be part of my country's history."
Like the other Arab athletes in these photos, Seoud already is.