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Going for gold: How did Middle Eastern nations fare in first week at Rio Games?

A Saudi sprinter, a German horseman and a Kuwaiti marksman among competitors from Middle East nations making Olympic headlines
Egypt's Sara Ahmed makes history as the first Arab woman to win an Olympic weightlifting medal (AFP)

Following the first week of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Middle East Eye looks back over the stories and athletes from the region that have caught our eye in Brazil so far.

UAE: Judo bronze

It’s been a long competitive drought, but the UAE has finally won only its second-ever Olympic medal.

The UAE flag was hoisted at an Olympic arena for the first time in 12 years as Moldovan-born judoka Sergiu Toma won bronze in the men's 81kg weight class, defeating Japanese world champion Nagase Takanori in style to clinch victory.

The 29-year-old was naturalised three years ago alongside five other Moldovans as the Gulf state sought to make its mark on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

Bruised, bleeding and breathless, a tearful Toma paid his tributes on the podium. “I want to say thank you to everyone who was close to me and supported me: people from my country, Moldova; people from the UAE; and my coach. This is a medal for the UAE, for sure.”

All eyes now turn to shooters Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Saif Bin Futtais Al Mansoori - the former a five-time Olympian – as the UAE looks to fire up its quest for Olympic glory. The country's only previous medal was a shooting gold won by Ahmed Al Maktoum at the Athens Games in 2004.

Saudi Arabia: Female sprint debut

Saudi Arabia had a first this year with Kariman Abuljadayel being the first woman from the country to participate in the 100m sprint.

Tunisia: Fencer dedicates medal to Arab women

Ines Boubakri won the Arab world’s first ever women's Olympic fencing medal on Wednesday, dedicating her bronze to "the Tunisian women, the Arab woman... who has her place in society".

The 27-year-old defeated Russia's Aida Shanaeva to snatch third-place, an achievement made sweeter as Boubakri had lost to the same opponent at the Moscow world championships last year.

"This medal, it's historic for Tunisia. It's incredible," a joyous Boubakri said.

"I hope that this will be a message for all Tunisians, especially our youth, all Tunisian women, the Arab woman."

Iran: Weightlifting world record

Iran swept to its first medal of the Games with Kianosh Rostami winning gold by beating his own world record in the 85kg weightlifting.

Egypt: First female medallist in 104 years

Sara Ahmed made history as the first Arab woman to win an Olympic weightlifting medal.

The 18-year-old is also Egypt's first female medalist in the country's 104-year-history of participation at the Games and the country's first weightlifting medallist since 1948.

Ahmed won bronze in the women's 69kg weight class on Wednesday, lifting a combined weight of 255kg to finish behind China's Xiang Yanmei, who claimed the gold, and Kazakhstan’s Zhazira Zhapparkul in second place.

Ahmed's breakthrough feat was made possible after the International Weightlifting Federation relaxed its dress rules in 2011 to allow women to compete in the full-body unitard, a move benefiting Muslim women.

She lifted 112kg in the snatch and 143kg in the clean and jerk. She then broke into tears and sobbed.

Ahmed was joined later in the day by compatriot Mohamed Mahmoud, who won Egypt its second medal of the Games during his first Olympic outing. The 26-year-old lifted a total of 361kg and ranked third in the men’s 77kg category, securing a personal triumph of 165kg in the snatch and 196kg in the clean-and-jerk.

Egypt’s double weightlifting success meant that it topped the MENA region medal table at the end of the first week of competition on Thursday:

But Egypt's team also stirred controversy with Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby refusing to shake hands with his Israeli opponent and subsequently being jeered out of the Olympic arena on Friday.

El Shehaby was beaten by Or Sasson in their heavyweight first round encounter. At the end of the bout, he refused initially to either bow to the Israeli or shake his hand.

In judo it is customary to both bow to opponents - a sign of respect in Japan - and shake hands after a bout is over.

El Shehaby had been well beaten but stood impassively as Sasson tried to shake his hand.

As he left the mat area, El Shehaby was called back to the centre by the referee to bow.

He was then loudly jeered out of the arena by angry supporters.

The 32-year-old, a world championship medallist in 2010, had faced pressure on social media in his homeland to withdraw from the fight, owing to popular opposition in Egypt to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

Unlike some other Muslim and Arab nations, Egypt has no history of withdrawing from judo bouts against Israelis.

The Egyptian Olympic Committee had insisted before the fight that El Shehaby would compete.

Israel: Shuttle bus diplomatic tensions

Israeli judoka Yarden Gerbi became the country's first competitor to win a medal at the Games after overcoming an early setback to secure a bronze medal.

The win also made her the first Israeli Olympic medallist since windsurfer Shahar Tzuberi brought home bronze from the Beijing Games in 2008.

The 27-year-old Gerbi was also the second-ever woman in Israel’s history honoured on the Olympic podium – a feat recognised by President Reuven Rivlin, who described her as a "champion" and said that “today, you are our hero".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also applauded the athlete on Twitter:

The presence of Israeli and Arab teams in close quarters and sometimes direct competition sparked other incidents in the first week, with Israel accusing Lebanese Olympians of "racism" after they reportedly refused to share transport with their counterparts.  

Sportspeople from Lebanon and Israel, which are officially at war and have no diplomatic relations, had been scheduled to travel together in a single bus to the Olympics opening ceremony last Friday.

Israeli sailing coach Udi Gal wrote a post on Facebook following the altercation, calling it a “diplomatic incident”.

Gili Lusting, the head of Israel’s Olympic delegation, told the Associated Press that Olympic officials had responded to the incident by arranging separate transport for the athletes.

Turkey: Basketball glory 

Daniyar Ismayilov won Turkey's first medal in Rio in the men's 69kg weightlifting, lifting a total of 351kg and bagging the silver. Shi Zhiyong of China took the gold with 352kg.

Meanwhile Turkey also defeated the previously unbeaten Japanese team 76-62 in women’s basketball after an inspired personal performance by Lara Sanders, a former college and WNBA star in the US who gained Turkish citizenship in 2013, scoring 36 points.

Teammates Nevriye Yilmaz and Isil Alben added 15 and 14 points respectively to ensure a comfortable win.

Independent Olympics Team

Kuwaiti shooter Fehaid al-Deehani, competing at the Rio Games as an independent athlete because of his country's ban from the Games, won the men's double trap gold on Wednesday.

Deehani, 49, a bronze medallist in Sydney in 2000 and London in 2012, took part in Brazil as part of the independent team because the International Olympic Committee has suspended Kuwait for government interference in sport.

The army officer, at his sixth Games, is one of nine people competing as an independent athlete. He refused to carry the IOC flag at the opening ceremony, saying that the only flag he would carry was the flag of Kuwait.

The winner of Kuwait's only two previous Olympic medals is now the first independent to win gold at an Olympics.


A 54-year-old German businessman, Christian Zimmermann, became the first person ever to represent Palestine in an Olympic equestrian event, riding to a 57th place finish out of 60 in the individual dressage competition.

Zimmermann, a descendant of German composer Robert Schumann who holds dual German and Palestinian citizenship, said his decision to represent Palestine was part of a "push for peace" in the Middle East.

"We as Germans carry a special responsibility for the Jewish people and for Israel,” he said. "But this responsibility also means that we must push for peace in the Middle East conflict, as difficult as that may be.

"On top of that, you can be critical of the development of Israeli policy in recent years. So finally I decided to ride for Palestine, as a gesture towards the Palestinian people.

"If, by competing in the Olympics, I can contribute in some small way to giving the region and its inhabitants a bigger voice, I have been successful."

Palestine’s six-person Olympic delegation also includes a 100-metre runner from Gaza, a judoka, and a 50-metre swimmer who completed all her training in a 25-metre pool because there are no Olympic-sized facilities in the West Bank. 

But troubles of the Middle East followed the Palestinians to Rio, with the team arriving in Brazil without their official uniforms and equipment, which were impounded by Israeli customs.

"We got one shipment [of equipment] several months ago, and we have not been able to bring it in," said Munther Masalmeh, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Olympic Committee. "We were forced to travel without our equipment and to buy them instead in Brazil."