Sports Can whistleblowing achieve positive results?

Shaima Al-Husseini, managing director at the Saudi Sports for All Federation, has overseen a remarkable rise in participation across sporting codes and physical activities in the Kingdom over the last few years.

Whether in the various community programs that have been established by the federation or in official competitions, engagement is well on track to meet the targets set by the country’s Vision 2023 and Quality of Life program to produce a more active and healthier society.

Al-Husseini spoke to Arab News about the strides made in recent years.

Arab News: The recent 2024 Riyadh Marathon saw a record number of runners. Tell us what that means to you and sports in Saudi Arabia?

Al-Husseini: The significant participation in the 2024 Riyadh Marathon is a testament to the growing importance of sports in Saudi Arabia. It reflects a cultural shift towards embracing physical activity as an integral part of our society.

With over 20,000 participants, including a record 60 percent Saudi nationals, the marathon signifies a unifying force that brings people together irrespective of nationality, gender or background.

The speed at which this development has taken place should also be noted, this is only the event’s third edition, yet the 2024 Riyadh Marathon saw 20,000 participants. In 2022, it attracted 10,000 runners, meaning a 100 percent rise in just two years.

It underscores the success of the SFA’s efforts in promoting a healthier lifestyle, and demonstrates that sports have become a vehicle for fostering inclusivity, promoting personal well-being, and enhancing social cohesion within our communities.

Also, the increased participation showcases Saudi Arabia as an emerging sporting nation on the global stage, contributing to the country’s reputation and profile in the international sports arena.

Are we seeing more people from outside Saudi Arabia taking part in the Riyadh Marathon?

The Riyadh Marathon has become increasingly attractive to participants from outside Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by the diverse representation of runners from 125 countries in the 2024 edition.

This trend highlights the growing international recognition and appeal of the marathon as a premier sporting event. The event has been a World Athletics Elite Label Road Race since the start, and if you look at the elite male and female runners winning the top cash prizes, they are from Morocco, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The influx of international participants not only enriches the overall experience but promotes cultural exchange and global engagement. It reflects positively on Saudi Arabia’s efforts to position itself as a hub for sports tourism, and underscores its commitment to hosting world-class sporting events that resonate globally.

As we continue to enhance the marathon’s overall experience, we anticipate further growth in international participation in the coming years.

Does having shorter runs like 10 km and 4 km translate into significant increases in participation from local communities and families?

Offering shorter runs like the 10 km and the 4 km family run has been instrumental in driving increased participation from local communities and families. Currently, these events attract the most runners on the day.

The shorter distances cater to a broader spectrum of participants, including beginners, families, and individuals who may not be ready for longer distances like the full or half-marathon, but can pave the way to longer distances in the future.

By providing options that are accessible and achievable for everyone, we’ve witnessed a surge in participation from both the younger and older age groups.

These shorter runs not only promote inclusivity, with the 4 km (open to all, with children accompanied by an adult) and 10 km races (ages 17 and above) acknowledging that 75 percent of those competing in the event are classified as youth, but also foster a culture of active living within households, encouraging family members to engage in physical activity.

The SFA is involved in a number of community sports and events, what other increases in participation and engagement are we seeing across the Kingdom?

We are starting to see increases across the board. According to the General Authority for Statistics (GASTAT) in 2021, 48.2 percent of the resident population engaged in physical activity for at least 30 minutes per week, while 29.7 percent devoted at least 150 minutes.

These figures mark a commendable increase of 3.2 and 9.7 percentage points, respectively, compared to 2019.

And we see increases in various target sectors. Our own youth activities have seen growing numbers, with more than 43,000 memberships across 45 Neighborhood Clubs, representing 55 percent male, and 45 percent female.

Female participation rates in physical activity for 30 minutes per week increased to more than 40 percent in 2022, jumping from being less than 16 percent in 2018.

The SFA’s goals are guided by Vision 2030 and the Quality of Life Program. Since joining the SFA in 2019, how have you seen the journey towards those goals?

Since joining the SFA, I feel we’ve made significant strides. The journey towards a healthier and more active population has been marked by notable achievements, including increased participation rates in physical activities across the Kingdom.

Through targeted initiatives, strategic partnerships, and innovative programs, we’ve successfully engaged diverse segments of society, from youth to adults, in adopting healthier lifestyles and embracing the benefits of physical activity.

Our efforts have also extended beyond traditional sports to encompass a wide range of activities, from community fitness events to cultural festivals, thereby catering to diverse interests and preferences.

I think we’ve witnessed a cultural shift towards valuing health and well-being, with more individuals incorporating physical activity into their daily lives.

Looking ahead, we remain committed to advancing the objectives of Vision 2030 and the Quality of Life Program, driving further progress towards a more active, inclusive, and prosperous Saudi society.

Women’s sports have been on the rise in Saudi Arabia in recent years. Tell us about the role that the SFA plays in that.

Women’s sports have been on the rise. For the 2024 Riyadh Marathon, we had 7,295 female participants. This compares to previous years, where we had 5,123 in 2023, and 3,297 in 2022. So in two years, the number of females has more than doubled.

The SFA has played a pivotal role in advancing women’s sports in Saudi Arabia, spearheading initiatives to promote inclusivity, empowerment, and participation among female athletes. The number of participations for sports activities for females is now 401,810 per year.

In 2023, our Neighborhood Clubs had 19,962 female memberships out of a total 45,935. The all-female Global Goals World Cup event attracts more than 200 participants, and we see more than 190 attending the women’s days in our SFA domes. Total female participation for the first and second phases of our three-part sports program, aimed at those aged 35-50, is more than 13,000.

And out of more than 1,700 community sports groups, 120 are led by females.

Through targeted programs and strategic partnerships, we’ve created platforms for women to pursue their sporting passions, break barriers, and achieve their full potential.

One of our landmark initiatives was the establishment of the Women’s Football League in November 2020, which marked a significant milestone in the history of women’s sports in the Kingdom.

Since then, we’ve continued to support and expand opportunities for women across various sports disciplines, from football to running to functional fitness.

Additionally, our efforts extend beyond the field of play to address broader societal challenges and promote gender equality through sports. As a result, we’ve witnessed more women embracing sports as a pathway to personal growth and empowerment.

What are the SFA’s big plans in the coming months and years?

We have ambitious plans to further advance the sports landscape in the Kingdom, such as continuing to invest in infrastructure, facilities, and programs to make sports more accessible to all, developing talent, and promoting health and wellness.

After the Riyadh Marathon, we had the all-female Global Goals World Cup in March, which is about sport and promoting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Then our effective #MoveYourWorld social media campaign is back in the summer, so is our SFA Expo, and we’re sure to participate again in the iF3 Functional Fitness World Championships later in the year.

We’ll continue to develop our app and explore new ways to incorporate the data provided by wearables, as well as AI, to keep building incentives and more personalization for users.

We’re also looking at other ways to incentivize females, creating opportunities for parents, mothers, and their children to practice or play together.

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