Pommel horses and protesters

In the tortured aftermath of the Arab Spring, Yemeni gymnasts cling to a forgotten sport

Topics: The Classical, The Olympics, Yemen, Arab Spring, Muslims,

Pommel horses and protesters
This originally appeared on The Classical.

Inside a stuffy, ramshackle warehouse on the northern outskirts of Yemen’s capital, a dozen male gymnasts line up at the end of a tattered vaulting runway. Wedged into a tight corner on the opposite side of the warehouse, the bright red steel of a high-tech Gymnova vaulting table donated by the Japanese Embassy in Sana’a to the barebones Yemen Gymnastics Federation stands in stark contrast to the corrugated metal and cracking cement of the building surrounding it.
The Classical
As the first gymnast sprints down the fraying stretch of carpet toward the vault, his gruff coach shouts encouragement in Arabic: “Jump big, like you dream!” Hurdling himself onto the vault, the gymnast’s height on his takeoff is impressive. Later on, as he tends to the blisters on his hands from the dozens of conditioning drills he executes each practice, he admits with a shy smile to the big dream that motivates this dynamic explosion off the vaulting table – to one day compete in an international meet.

Watching his remarkable height in the air after propelling himself off the same brand of apparatus found on the competition floor at the Olympics in London, it is clearly not the size of this gymnast’s dream that is the problem. But as he offsets the sting of landing on a concrete floor covered with only a ragged piece of foam by falling backwards into an even more pockmarked mat resting against a concrete wall, it becomes apparent what the true problem is: the reality of the state of gymnastics in Yemen. Here, in one of the poorest countries in the world, even the most basic resources and funding are difficult to find anywhere – let alone in the forgotten gymnasium of an obscure sport.

For the two-dozen or so gymnasts who train with the Yemen Gymnastics Federation in Sana’a five days a week, that reality means not always having all the proper equipment. This gymnastics club – the only one in the capital city of nearly two million people – does not even have a high bar or a set of rings.

Practice wraps up early with a shortened rotation on parallel bars. Only scant sunlight is filtering into the gym through the holes unceremoniously cut into its metal siding, and the darkness makes it too dangerous to practice much of anything on bars six feet above the ground. Like much of the rest of Sana’a, the gym has received intermittent electricity at best since the outbreak of the civil unrest in early 2011, and today is no exception.



***

Four years ago, Nashwan al-Harazi did something only four-dozen other people in his country of nearly 30 million people can say – he competed in the Olympic Games. At just 21 years old, not only was Al-Harazi the first Yemeni to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics, but he also did so representing a country with a tradition in the sport barely older than he was.

“It was the biggest accomplishment in my life,” Al-Harazi proudly proclaims over the phone from his home in Seattle, where he now lives, studies, and coaches. “It was like a dream. And it all happened very, very quickly.”

Indeed, the events in al-Harazi’s life during 2008 moved even faster than he can sprint across the floor exercise. In mid-March, while training for the distant opportunities of next season – a regional competition here, a possible modest World Cup assignment there – he received the phone call that would change his life forever: the International Olympic Committee, as part of a tripartite athletic commission, had selected him to compete in the Olympics. Along with a promising young female Vietnamese vaulter, he was being offered literally one of the last two spots in Beijing.

Suddenly, al-Harazi’s lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics would be realized that August. And with just a handful of international competitions under his belt, he needed to quickly switch from training in the long-term to realizing that, in a mere five months, he would be taking the stage at the world’s ultimate sporting event.

“Stepping onto the floor at the Olympics was the biggest honor,” al-Harazi whispers into the phone as he talks about that magical day in 2008.

In Beijing, he competed on three events, including a 16th place on vault. But for Al-Harazi, who stayed up late the night before the competition to take his lap around the Beijing National Stadium at the opening ceremonies and walk behind the Yemeni flag, it was all about the experience.

“It was all something I will never, never forget,” Al-Harazi beams.

That could very well have been the end of a heartwarming story – an unknown gymnast from an obscure and troubled corner of the Middle East being granted an improbable wildcard to realize his lifelong dream of competing in the Olympic Games. This is not that.

While the 2008 Olympics could have proven to be the pinnacle of Al-Harazi’s competitive gymnastics career, he felt that he still had more work to do. But having reached the peak of what he could accomplish for the time being in Yemen, al-Harazi boarded three flights and moved 8000 miles across the world to Seattle, Washington, to live with a man who not only knew all about the state of gymnastics in Yemen, but also wanted to help al-Harazi in his quest to fix it.

Before drone strikes, before the underwear bomber, before even the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, Jim Holt was just an American coach traveling to a distant Middle Eastern country to help develop its gymnastics program. In 1996, sponsored by the IOC as part of its Olympic Solidarity initiative to aid in the advancement of Olympic sports in underprivileged countries, Holt traveled to Yemen for the very first time. This trip wasn’t his first time abroad as an ambassador for the sport of gymnastics.

“I’m the self-proclaimed Minister of International Gymnastics Development,” Holt jokes over the phone from Edinburgh, where he is now the coach of the Men’s Scottish National Team. And having traveled for the IOC Solidarity program in eight different countries, Holt could tell immediately that the coaches in Yemen were not thinking big enough.

While leading a program for gymnasts and coaches at the gymnasium in Sana’a, Holt could sense that everyone in the dank room needed some inspiration. “So I pointed to a boy in the corner and said, ‘this is him. This could be your guy to compete in the Olympics,’” he explains.

That boy turned out to be 10-year-old Nashwan Al-Harazi.

“I guess he believed me,” Holt laughs again. “He stuck to me like a barnacle that whole trip.” Looking back through old photos from his first trip to Yemen, a scrawny ten year-old Nashwan even seems to be in every one of Holt’s pictures – from sitting on a piece of cardboard in the streets of Sana’a while eating fahsah to popping up in a picture of Holt heading out to the desert to shoot off an AK-47.

Things would not be easy for the young al-Harazi, however. The very first challenge he faced was the quality of the equipment in his home gym. Having traveled extensively to gyms all around the world, Holt had seen facilities in fairly pitiful shape. The one in Sana’a was in a class of its own.

The parallel bars – half a century old, Holt estimated – were surrounded by concrete. Though gutted mattresses lay underneath the rings for landing, the rings themselves dated back to the Second World War. And the vaulting board – a mat wedged between two slabs of wood with truck springs for bounce – was only less pitiful than the space in which gymnasts worked on their floor exercises, which was a jigsaw puzzle of foam and carpet with deep gaps in several places.

“In terms of the primitive equipment I’ve seen around the world, Yemen was at the bottom,” Holt confesses.

But as an exceptional twister with great sense of where his body was as it spun through the air, Al-Harazi showed promise. Though his English skills were limited, he stayed in contact with Holt, even periodically sending him training videos. Despite two return trips by Holt to help mentor him and develop the gym, however, the opportunities al-Harazi needed as a high-level gymnast were just not available in Yemen. With a disheartening lack of funding and prospects for international competitions either falling through or not materializing at all, al-Harazi’s frustrations grew.

“Nashwan is one of the most extraordinarily hard-working men I have ever met, so it was disappointing for him,” Jim explains. Fed-up with his lack of opportunities, al-Harazi e-mailed Holt in 2006 and expressed his frustration.

“I said I had to do something big or I had to stop gymnastics,” Al-Harazi recalls.

So, together, they did something big.

With the help of Holt – who previously coached gymnasts in 13 different world championships for six different federations – al-Harazi qualified for the world championships in Aarhus, Denmark, and trained briefly in Seattle with Jim and his wife Hannah before the competition in October 2006. He placed 27th on the vault and showed some promise on both floor and pommel horse; he also became the first Yemeni ever to compete at the world championships in the sport of gymnastics.

But it was clear that with such promise, al-Harazi needed more intense training. The Holts mapped out his roadmap to success, which included training for an even longer period in Seattle, and the Yemen Olympic Committee supported the plan. And in 2007, al-Harazi qualified to the world champions for a second time.

This time, however, the YOC wanted him to compete in the all-around, despite al-Harazi barely having touched rings, high bar, or parallel bars in his 14-year gymnastics career. Undaunted, he went back to Washington and learned 24 new skills in 25 weeks under Holt in order to compete on apparatus he had never touched before on any competition floor, let alone at the world championships.

After half a year of intense training in Seattle, it all paid off an ocean away in Stuttgart, Germany, at the world championships. There, again as the only gymnast from Yemen, al-Harazi competed in the final rotation not only with Spain and South Korea – whose teams placed 6th and 5th respectively – but also with the hometown German team who captured the bronze medal.

“The feeling in the gym in Germany was like electricity,” Al-Harazi says.

Despite the intense pressure of competing in the same group as some of the biggest names in the sport, he not only competed well on his two new apparatus but also improved his placement and score on all three events that he competed in Denmark the year before. “Nashwan rocked it. And he really caught people’s attention,” Holt says. Less than half a year later, he had been chosen for the 2008 Olympics.

But al-Harazi’s selection was not without its controversy. Without gold medals from the previous year’s championships, the world silver medalists on pommel horse, rings, and high bar – from Hungary, the Netherlands, and Slovenia respectively – did not automatically qualify for the Olympics in 2008. As their teams were not strong enough to qualify as a whole, these three gymnasts were all gunning for the single wildcard in the men’s competition.

When the tripartite commission ultimately awarded that spot to al-Harazi, many voices in the gymnastics community proclaimed that it should have been awarded to one of the “more qualified” European gymnasts. A petition with over 40,000 signatures – that of the Slovenian prime minister among them – circulated online to allow Aljaž Pegan, the Slovenian high bar silver medalist, to compete in Beijing.

But al-Harazi was gracious in his words when he found out the news. “I know that there are gymnasts with greater accomplishments than me who have not been invited to Beijing,” he told International Gymnast magazine a few days after his selection in 2008.

Al-Harazi didn’t win a medal at the World Championships or the Olympics, but that seems somehow behind the point in this case, given how much al-Harazi embodies the best and rarest aspects of the Olympic spirit.

Al-Harazi’s self-improvement isn’t limited to the gym; he’s studying English and economics in Washington while simultaneously coaching at the Seattle Gymnastics Academy. He also went back to the world championships in 2010 and still has plans to continue competing through 2016. In late 2011, he flew to Doha to compete in the Asian Games with less than a month of notice. “When I say he is the single most hardworking person I know, I’m not exaggerating,” Holt assures.

Part of that hard work includes bringing that Olympic spirit – not just the old homilies of work and self-improvement through competition, but the sturdier virtues of hope and will – back to his gymnastics club. In a country that’s in desperate need of hope amidst the constant gloom of turmoil, violence, and uncertainty, al-Harazi can help a lot more than the gymnastics program.

***

While the rest of the world’s top athletes are unpacking their bags in London, Nashwan al-Harazi is starting to pack his. In a month, he is flying from Seattle to Sana’a for a visit with his family and friends at the gym. And though he may not be coming home with an Olympic medal like some of the lucky athletes in London, the people he will be visiting won’t care about that – they will just want to hear the story of Beijing again.

“He’s a big inspiration,” Nawaf, a gymnast at Al-Harazi’s home club in Sana’a, excitedly explains in between back-tuck drills on the floor exercise. Indeed, during the span of one practice, Nashwan’s name is thrown around half a dozen times as motivation.

It will not be an easy road for these Yemeni gymnasts, though, with finances topping the long list of issues facing their federation.

“There is no money,” says Ali al-Harazi, Nashwan’s brother who serves as a coach for the Yemen Gymnastics Federation. Crumpled pictures of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh still sit in the corners of the gym, a reminder of the past year’s turmoil. The Yemeni government, which used to supply funding through the Ministry of Youth and Sports, has not been able to provide the kind of financial support needed to run the gym. Amid the tumult of 2011’s Arab Spring, the sport of gymnastics was, understandably enough, not deemed a top priority. So struggles with the condition of equipment and ability to keep the gym open continue.

“God willing, we just will get our rings,” al-Harazi says.

Lack of funding means more than a disintegrating gym; it also means no money to host or travel to competitions. With even regional Middle Eastern competitions out of the question, that leaves just the nine other gymnastics clubs in all of Yemen to compete against. None of those teams have enough money to so much as hire a bus to drive to one another’s gyms.

The gymnasts in al-Harazi’s home club in Sana’a can at least work out regularly now – for much of 2011, though, the gym was shuttered. Surrounded by gunfire and thousands of protesters clashing in the streets with pro-government forces, even being inside the gym was deemed too unsafe. During lulls in the conflict when the gym finally could open, the lack of electricity prevented any sort of reliability in practice hours. But with over 2,000 of their countrymen killed in the protests, there were other things to worry about.

Filing outside the gym and peeling off their bandages from a hard day’s practice, the mood is more somber than the jovial atmosphere moments earlier when all the gymnasts were flying through the air. For a while, in the middle of the gravel lot surrounding the gym in this trouble neighborhood in Sana’a, there is silence. Then, a young gymnast throws a series of back handsprings, kicking dust and dirt up into the air. Finishing, he salutes to everyone like he just finished an Olympic routine and promptly turns toward a nearby flagpole and starts singing the Yemeni national anthem. Everyone laughs.

“These are future Olympians if we can get support. If our country can get support,” al-Harazi says. His brother, the Yemeni Olympic hero, knows that best.

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