Ali AL-Qahtani, Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation, Discusses Hosting International Competitions, Developing Swimming and Olympic Sports in Saudi Arabia

By Steven Selthoffer, Swimming World European correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, December 8. ALI AL-Qahtani is one of the top sport executives in Saudi Arabia with a broad base of professional sport and executive banking experience. He is progressive, articulate and constantly scanning the horizons for new ideas to promote change through sports while implementing global best practices.

Mr. AL-Qahtani is the former General Secretary and current, member of the Board of Directors, for the Saudi Arabia Swimming Federation. He is a member of the Swimming Technical Committee, Asian Swimming Federation, and is a senior executive at SABB/HSBC Saudi Arabia

Currently, Mr. AL-Qahtani is helping to redesign sport programs promoting equal opportunities and Olympic sports combined with higher education.

Mr. AL-Qahtani would like to see Saudi Arabia host, not only FINA international open water, swimming and other aquatic events, but, would like to expose the younger generation of Saudi youth to higher education through sport opportunities.

The following is an in-depth interview Mr. AL-Qahtani granted to Swimming World speaking to the FINA global aquatic family concerning swimming and developing Olympic sports in Saudi Arabia.

The Interview
SW: Mr. AL-Qahtani, Doha, Qatar, has recently been awarded the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. How did you feel when you heard the news about that?

AL-Qahtani: "I am really happy for them. Its a good example for us and for everyone in the region. I studied them. They (the Doha World Cup Organizing Committee) were an excellent group, highly motivated, with a clear vision, and in a very little amount of time, they have accomplished so much. They accomplished some really good things. I watched their group form their objectives, set their goals, and pass their milestones. I really admire what they have done. I wish we were in the same position (to be able to bid for the World Cup) and to bring opportunities like that to Saudi Arabia. They did a wonderful thing for everyone. I congratulate them.

SW: As a member of the Swimming Technical Committee, for the Asian Swimming Federation, KSA delegation just returned from the 16th Asian Games. How did the Games go for KSA?

AL-Qahtani: "There were so many events. It's good for Saudi Arabia and the other countries to take part in those Games. We had chances for two swimmers, but we have a long way to go. It's a great opportunity for our young athletes to be exposed and to participate in the Asian Games. It expands their horizons and gives them the opportunity to meet so many different athletes from all over the world; It shows that sports can be a lifestyle and it broadens their education. It's vitally important to link sports with education.

SW: Where are you at in your plans with developing swimmers and Olympic athletes in Saudi Arabia?

AL-Qahtani: "We understand clearly where we are at in comparison to the rest of the world. We are still on a junior level in terms of our level of competition. At the Asian Games, it was special to see the Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans, the swimmers and athletes from other countries.

We have a large gap to bridge. It will take time. We are developing long range plans. But, there is talent here among both young boys and girls. We are focusing on building our base and in our age-group and school developmental programs in Saudi Arabia. But, none the less, it was great just to take part."

SW: What are the aquatic facilities like in Saudi Arabia?

AL-Qahtani: "We have some great facilities. Three big Olympic 50m swim/sport complexes and 19 other pools governed by the Saudi Sport Authority. Plus, there are other different and independent sport organizations within Saudi Arabia with their facilities and pools. We are open minded and are always looking at global best-methods, best-practices. We have an infrastructure that in the future will really produce some good results. We started giving the kids the opportunity to choose sports and to pursue their dreams and aspirations."

SW: What are your goals with hosting an international sport event in Saudi Arabia?

AL-Qahtani: "We're hosting FINA Water Polo World Trophy event next April/May 2011. Hosting an international FINA aquatics event for swimming or an open water event, and the related activities… is not just about swimming, competing and sports. It's far more important than that for us. It's a way to educate the young people and to communicate to the world, that we share the same important values and ideals you do. We want to share and to do our part in helping to promote those values of equal opportunity, fairness, and friendship, and to give education and sport opportunities to the younger, to the next generation. As parents, it's what we all want for our children. Sports are a great vehicle to be able to achieve that.

We want our athletes to see things from a different perspective, to understand others' points of view. Sport helps our young people to set goals and objectives, not only in sport, but, for life. I don't see how education and sport can be separated in the life of our youth. They can't be. Education and sport go together, at the university level… at all education levels.

It's fantastic for our athletes to participate in the large events like the Asian Games, the Olympics, World Championships, or other international events. They get to meet different men and women from all over the world. That is a great thing. It's reality. It builds character and exposes them to new opportunities they could only have achieved through sports.

You can talk to the youth, you can talk to them, talk to them, talk to them. But, through sports, what you want to communicate, they will learn instantly through traveling and competing. Its equivalent to ten years worth of work! Right?

Take for instance (Dalma Rushdi H Malhas), the first Saudi female to compete at an Olympic event (The first-ever Youth Games) last August, won bronze in equestrian. That was incredible! It was a fantastic moment for all of Saudi Arabia. It inspires our young men and women to have the courage to try new things. It shows them what is possible. I mean, it inspires all of us! It makes everyone see what is possible. I'd love to see more things like that.

There is no substitute for sports participation. Its one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and other generations. I am dedicated to working on that for Saudi Arabia and for the rest of the world, for them to come to know Saudi Arabia, and for Saudi Arabia to come to know them. We need to do more of that."

SW: What are the aquatic events you'd like to see in Saudi Arabia?

AL-Qahtani: "I'd love to see open water swimming come to Saudi Arabia. We are surrounded by, what? 70%-80% water? When I was a young boy, we had a lot of long distance swimming in the sea. It's our culture. It's our heritage, for all Saudis. It's a way of life. We are all connected to the sea in some way here.

International open water events in Saudi Arabia would be a big success here. We have to work on that and for developing programs to attract events like those here. We all are aware of the recent event that has happened (concerning the death of Open Water Swimmer Fran Crippen). It was tragic. Our prayers and sympathies are with his family. However, we could offer first-class, international events, annually. Its something we should look at more closely."

SW: What is the strategic vision for Saudi aquatics and Olympic sports?

AL-Qahtani: "We are focusing on redesigning our system for athletes and sports, to better develop swimmers and Olympic athletes. I want to combine that with higher education opportunities at home and abroad like with the NCAA and in Europe. Basically, to develop the high school and university education and sport programs with facilities to produce top athletes, male and female, and to allow those young people to go abroad to train and to learn. We would be introducing ourselves more to the world and the world to us.

Building world-class facilities and keep them well maintained is a good thing, but, building young men and women, helping them to develop their character, along with giving them the opportunity to reach their potential in life is far more important. As sport executives, we have a responsibility to make that happen."

SW: Last comments?

AL-Qahtani: "I'd love to say, we here in Saudi Arabia love and enjoy sports. We have a large and growing, younger generation and we are sending them abroad for their high school and university education and sports. We would like to be involved in hosting more international sport events here. It will help with better understanding and peace in the world.

Because of the political events of the past ten years, there is a lot of uncertainty. We understand that. But, it has not diminished our vision or the values we mutually share. We want to see world-class competitions come to Saudi Arabia for everyone, not just for the good of our own people, but, also for the good of the world.

It would be a great opportunity for the youth of the world to meet with other young men and women, and to compete on the best of terms here in Saudi Arabia. I'm working hard to make that happen."

SW: Thank you for your time Mr. AL-Qahtani. We wish all the best to you and the Saudi Swimming Federation, the athletes and your FINA and Olympic representatives.

AL-Qahtani: "Thank you Steve. Good to finally get together again. Please pass on my regards to our friends around the world, and in the USA to Swimming World, USA Swimming, and to our friends in Europe. Good talking to you again." ■

Mr. Ali AL-Qahtani's first language is Arabic. English is his second language. We apologize for any misunderstandings or misquotes.