Gale Review Team
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By Vicky Pavlicic, Senior Strategic Marketing Manager, Gale International EMEA
I first became aware that the Islamic Solidarity Games was a major sporting event last year, when a friend announced he was moving to Baku for 8 months to help plan the ceremony. His official job title for the event is ‘Aerial Flying Manager’ – remember the flying Mary Poppins’ in the opening of the London Olympics? That’s the kind of thing he does. He has spent 8 months preparing for the opening and closing ceremonies. “What are the Islamic Solidarity Games?” I asked, unable to hide my ignorance…” A bit like the Olympics for the Middle East” he replied…Well if this is the case, why hadn’t I heard about them before?
The 22nd May 2017 saw the close of the 4th Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. All 56 members of the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation were supposed to participate, although Sudan and Libya dropped out at the last minute. Due to the suspension of the Kuwait Olympic Committee, athletes from Kuwait were due to participate in the Games as Independent ISSF Athletes, under the Flag of the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation, but also dropped out the evening before. This is not the first time that the games have experienced discord.
Using the Gale Primary Sources database, I discovered that the Islamic Solidarity Games have a colourful history despite the newness of the event. They are briefly mentioned in The Times in 2001 – when the intention of the games to ‘raise the level of sporting ability in the Islamic world’ is announced by Prince Sultan bin Fahd, the then sports minister of Saudi Arabia. With Iran and Syria due to be hosts for the 2nd and 3rd games respectively. 
‘The Biggest Sports Event Outside the Olympics’
The Saudi Arabia games in 2005 received minor coverage in The Times – an almost unnoticeable statement that highlights the relevant unimportance of this event in the British/Western Media. Alan Hubbard, writing as sports journalist of the year in The Independent on Sunday, mentions the Islamic Solidarity Games in passing – referencing Sebastian Coe choosing not to visit the “biggest multinational sports event outside the Olympics…[opening] yesterday amid splendour in the holiest of Muslim Citadels” but believing he will return at some point in a “quest to win vital Muslim backing for London 2012”. In a slightly longer article on p14  he discusses the games in more detail, the philosophy behind it being to ‘send a message to the world of ‘Love, friendship and humility’’ and to use sport as a platform for peace. So, what went on at the games themselves? We know that 54 countries, 7000 athletes and 13 sports were represented, and that according to Hubbard, no women could participate, that Saudi women were unable to watch, and that Kazakhstan were tipped to be medal winners in the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics due to their prowess in the swimming pool.  However in another article  the reporter states that women and men actually participated at the games on separate days.
‘A Defection of Sorts’
More intriguingly still, reported as a ‘defection of sorts’ was that ‘one of the few Christian competitors, the Ugandan weightlifter Noah Sowobi, converted to Islam and was said by his manager to be “looking forward to getting circumcised when he gets home”. You Bet.’ This is verified using Gale PowerSearch where I find an article written by the Africa News Service with the title ‘Noah Sowobi Converts to Islam At Islamic Games’ where it is reported by Norman Katende:
“Sowobi, a Christian until last week, has reportedly been converted by the community at Madinnah Mosque. “Sowobi is yet to get a Muslim name but has already undergone the initial stages of becoming a Moslem, which include Moslem baptism (Shahadu),” said Uganda’s chief de mission Salim Musoke.
“He has been allowed to visit the holy land and has been given an expense paid trip back here for Hijja next year,” Musoke added. It was agreed he will be circumcised when he gets to Kampala. 
Sowobi is mentioned again in February 2006 in an article reporting on Ugandan athletes who might benefit from Ugandan Olympic Committee funding to prepare them for the upcoming commonwealth games, and is listed in the 2009 commonwealth weightlifting federation rankings as Sowobi, Noah. Unfortunately, after that he disappears, possibly because his name changed and I couldn’t uncover when his conversion was completed or which Muslim name he received.
‘The Nomenclatural Tussle’
The well-intentioned goal to use sport as a platform for peace and unity is marred rather during the planning of the second games. Originally scheduled to take place in Iran in 2009 and then rescheduled to April 2010, on subsequent searching I found out that they were called off. A small snippet in The Independent on Sunday on May 10th 2009 sees Alan Tong mention, as part of a ‘bad week for’ round up, that they were “cancelled because participating nations objected to hosts Iran insisting on using the name Persian Gulf instead of Arabian Gulf”.  This is again reported in The Times in January 2010, and expounded upon by Tom Sutcliffe in a piece entitled ‘Iran, their rivals and the Gulf between them’ in The Independent on Sunday,  who explains that this ‘nomenclatural tussle’ is a frequent problem with foreign newspaper desks who have decided on separate occasions to refer to the body of water in question as The Gulf. Although this suggestion was proposed, the Iranian hosts declined, and due to the Persian Gulf about to be inscribed on all the medals, the 2nd Islamic Solidarity Games never took place.‘Let’s prove to the world that Islamic countries can live in unity and harmony’
The Times 2001 record (above) is the only reference I can find stating that the 3rd games were originally due to be hosted in Syria – in fact the 3rd games were eventually held in Pelambang, Indonesia, from September 22nd – October 1st 2013. So, whilst 41 nations were competing in 13 different sports, by this time, Syria was in the throes of civil war. Unlike the first Saudi games the Indonesian opening ceremony was low key, ‘reflecting the lack of funding for the event’, and had to be delayed by 2 months due to poor organisation – but one of the key philosophies of the games remained:
“Let’s put aside our political burden, “Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in the opening ceremony, as he paid particular tribute to the Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian delegations attending the event. “Through this event, let’s prove to the world that Islamic countries can live in unity and harmony,”
The games were more ‘relaxed’, and although there were debates around women’s sport attire, the organisers did not ban bikinis as was requested by some participating nations. Nor did male and female competitors compete on different days. Senior organising committee member Djoko Pramono, ruled out the restrictions that were visible in Saudi Arabia with the statement reported in the same article:
“We have said since last year that we are going to follow international rules, not Muslim rules”.
This philosophy of a more relaxed and multicultural games has been reflected this May in Baku and has also been incorporated into the medal designs. “The central theme of the gold, silver and bronze medal design, which includes the Baku 2017 logo at its centre, revolves around the Islamic and cultural iconography found in traditional Azerbaijani carpet patterns. These elements, which are symbolic of the country’s heritage and often celebrate significant moments in history, have been elegantly interwoven to create a visual representation of the core values of the Baku 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games — solidarity, unity, respect and excellence.”
It will be interesting to see if this continues at the 5th Islamic Solidarity Games which will be hosted by Turkey in 2021.
”Venue named for first Games.” Times [London, England] 7 June 2001: 38. The Times Digital Archive. Web.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9F31 Hubbard, Alan. “Inside Lines.” Sportsweek. Independent on Sunday [London, England] 10 Apr. 2005: 2. The Independent Digital Archive.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s99A4 Hubbard, Alan. “‘Love, friendship and humility’.” Sportsweek. Independent on Sunday [London, England] 10 Apr. 2005: 14. The Independent Digital Archive.
http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9DU0 Hubbard, Alan. “Fans asked to put their shirts on Wrexham.” Sportsweek. Independent on Sunday [London, England] 24 Apr. 2005: 2. The Independent Digital Archive.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9Dk2 ”Islamic games open in Indonesia.” Daily News Egypt [Egypt], 25 Sept. 2013. Global Issues in Context, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA344128390&it=r&asid=d0091c54f98df454bc0671c0cdf72d8f. Hubbard, Alan. “Fans asked to put their shirts on Wrexham.” Sportsweek. Independent on Sunday [London, England] 24 Apr. 2005: 2. The Independent Digital Archive.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9Dk2 ”Noah Sowobi Converts to Islam At Islamic Games.” Africa News Service, 19 Apr. 2005. Business Collection, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA131693322&it=r&asid=3158dc2d82e6d65d44c31f6c14910ed9. Tong, Andrew. “Outside Edge.” Sport. Independent on Sunday [London, England] 10 May 2009: 23. The Independent Digital Archive. Web. 22 May 2017.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9Fs1 Sutcliffe, Tom. “‘Miracles’ that can be guaranteed.” Independent [London, England] 19 Jan. 2010: 35. The Independent Digital Archive. Web. 22 May 2017.
URL http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4s9Jy1 ”Islamic games open in Indonesia.” Daily News Egypt [Egypt], 25 Sept. 2013. Global Issues in Context, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA344128390&it=r&asid=d0091c54f98df454bc0671c0cdf72d8f. ”Baku 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games medals unveiled.” TREND News Agency, 7 Apr. 2017. Global Issues in Context, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GPS&sw=w&u=webdemo&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA488779381&it=r&asid=d7d41acbf6ab21e666df29ab0ce8da37.