In the Middle East, I found a form of heroism I hadn't foreseen. I came across some of the most inspiring human beings on this planet. My sage sports editors at The National in Abu Dhabi would assign me to interview female Middle Eastern athletes, and the life in their eyes would infuse more life into mine.
So as the Saudi Arabian government inched toward better health with an announcement on Sunday that female students in private schools could compete in sports, I thought of women from other Middle Eastern countries who already had kept running even against longstanding waves of culture. I thought of their well-informed fathers who usually had encouraged them because they knew it would boost them. I thought of their mothers who sometimes freaked out over their daughters' participation, but then sometimes witnessed their daughters in action and bought exercise machines.
I thought of the Kuwaiti triathlete at the gigantic Abu Dhabi Triathlon. She could not find a pool that would permit her to train in her homeland, so she found a lagoon near a construction site of chalets. She drove 45 minutes each way to access it. She braved its outsized jellyfish, plus the occasional obnoxious jet skier who might drift nearby. She swam often in complete darkness. She swam in her wetsuit through the cold. She measured out the 800 meters with her GPS watch.
I thought of two taekwondo practitioners, sisters from Oman who came to Abu Dhabi for a meet and extolled their sport as one method of coping with their untold grief after the death of their father. They readily volunteered how the sport had helped them lose weight. Their coach, a 52-year-old former member of the national team who had coached in the Congo, Bahrain and Oman, told of some pupils who had arrived with diabetes (a major regional problem), but had been able to cease the injections by staying healthy through the sport. He said he'd come upon an unexpected realization you sometimes have heard in the West: He found women more coachable. They listened more intently. They relished training more. And he didn't hear about them getting in fights across town.
I thought of three women from the United Arab Emirates instrumental in starting a women's soccer league, unthinkable a generation ago. They adored the game so much that they had played right along with brothers and male cousins as children, disabusing their male relatives of notions of female brittleness. One adored it so much that she had gone to Spain principally to see a Barcelona-Real Madrid match. Because of standards about clothing, they would have to play their league indoors, and when they kicked some soccer balls around for newspaper photographs, one girl's lower leg extended from beneath her abaya, prompting the removal of the photo after a complaint from the father who otherwise supported her hugely.
I thought of two UAE taekwondo athletes with distinguished athletic fathers, one the daughter of a former member of the national soccer team, and one the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the sportsman and horse owner and national vice president. The latter said her father had provided her with continual support and inspiration, and the former noted the "very, very initial" stage of female athletics there but credited her father, who rated sports alongside food in importance.
I thought of an incredible sound: wailing. You could hear it in the press conference room. It came from an adjacent locker room, from Jordanian soccer players who had just suffered a difficult tournament loss.
And I thought of the 24-year-old Iraqi citizen who lived in Abu Dhabi but would return to Arbil in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where she would go running through the hills and draw quizzical looks from bystanders. She had run since childhood and right on through her peers' impressions that she might be crazy. She had run because she just had to, and because at school she played soccer and basketball and table tennis and volleyball, and because when she saw grown expatriate women who incorporated running into their lives, she knew she wanted to emulate them.
In some ways, the setting felt like how the United States must have seemed some decades ago, even factoring in cultural dissimilarities. Sometimes I would see these settings and think of that pioneer, Pat Summitt, debuting at Tennessee with her first home game in December 1974 before an attendance of 53. In Abu Dhabi, as they staged a multi-day "olympics" for women, the schoolchildren brought in to cheer the female athletes included girls who no doubt witnessed something their mothers might not have.
Of course, Saudi Arabia does differ. Americans often conflate Saudi Arabia's neighbors with Saudi Arabia because Americans seldom know the world and because human brains seem drawn to extremes, and Saudi Arabia remains the region's most restrictive country. It remains the only country on Earth where women cannot drive. Only under orders from the International Olympic Committee did it send its first two female Olympic athletes to London in 2012.
Its public school girls still cannot participate in sports, even with this announcement.
But at least you could feel the world inching along on Sunday. And you could feel it inching along so close to places where, in the eyes and hearts of uncommonly determined women, you could feel it starting to gallop.