The Power of Asia: Bahrain



In this week’s THE POWER OF ASIA series, Badminton Asia (BA) had the privilege to interview members of the Bahrain Badminton and Squash Federation. We interviewed Dr. Sawsan Taqawi, the President of the Federation, Hesham Alabbasi, the Secretary General, and Ahmad Samer Aljallad, the National Team Coach. Badminton Asia was able to get insight on the sport’s popularity within the region and also the badminton programs that they have. We also discussed how the pandemic has affected the players not just physically, but also mentally as well, and what their future goals are for the federation and for the sport in general.


Meet the Ones that Move Badminton in Bahrain


Dr. Sawsan Taqawi is the President of the Federation. Dr. Sawsan has been involved in sports all her life, even studying physical education in Bahrain University, where she received her degree. In 1995 she began teaching badminton in school as part of the curriculum. Then she was hired by the Ministry of Sports at the ‘General Organization of Youth and Sports’ in 2001 to develop several sports in Bahrain. In 2011, she also had a political life where she was a member of the parliament and senate, before becoming President of the Bahrain Federation in 2017.


Hesham Alabbasi, the Secretary General has played badminton his whole life. He started to join the badminton team when he was 17 at University. He won the Bahrain Championship in 1981 when the federation was established and in 1984-5 he played in the first Asia Championship in Malaysia. Ever since the 80s, he’s been playing both badminton and squash. He’s still a very active player now, even playing in the matches for the older players internationally. “We were supposed to play in March in Sri Lanka in the Senior Championships but because of the pandemic it was cancelled!” he told us. He became involved in the federation in 2006 as a team manager before becoming the Secretary General in 2010. 


Badminton’s growth in the region is greatly due to the work of Dr. Sawsan and Secretary General Hesham Alabbasi, but a lot of the core growth of the players comes from those that teach them personally, including the National Team Coach, Ahmad Samer Aljallad. Ahmad is from Syria and is not only a coach, but also an international player, and holder of many Arab and International medals. Before moving to Bahrain as a coach in 2018, he was living, training and competing in Malaysia for 5 years. He still plays but not as much as before “Just two or three times a year I play international tournaments. I focus on coaching more.” he says.


The Pioneer in the Gulf Region


According to Dr. Sawsan, badminton is growing in the Gulf region. Bahrain is very familiar with badminton in comparison to its neighboring countries because of its longer history with the sport as it is one of the very first national badminton federations in the region. “The establishment of the national federation goes back to 1981, before I came in 2017” she says. “That’s something to be proud of for myself and for my country as well.” 


In terms of events, the Bahrain international tournament has been a key international tournament in the region since 2002, and according to Dr. Sawsan, thanks to BA’s support, they have hosted more than 17 international tournaments in the last 13 years. Additionally, national events regularly happen in Bahrain, with many of these events attracting regional players. 


Developing Talents while Embracing Gender Equality


The sport has been around for quite some time, and in 2017 when Dr. Sawsan came in, she developed a strategy within the federation in terms of development, events and performance for the continuous growth of the sport. “For development, Shuttle Time is one of our main development initiatives that we do. Now, we are drafting a national strategy to launch the Air Badminton project, and also a Para Badminton key development initiative. We also have plans underway to host the Asia Youth Para Games in December 2021”.  


In addition to those initiatives, women's participation and gender equity is also a key priority for the federation. We asked Dr. Sawsan just how important it is to have younger girls participate in sporting activities: “We in Bahrain don’t have differences in gender. We view someone based on their qualifications, in any field and not just in sports” she tells us. “In sports, we teach them at school from kindergarten to university. Women take part in these, but we still need more women to participate.” She further adds on, “I can see when girls participate in badminton, I can see their commitment to the sport. It makes me proud when I see them practicing, coming to training on time. It’s so important to have that mentality, that culture. Badminton is a place open for everybody: girls and boys, young children and the elderly, and para badminton as well.” 


When it comes to performance, Dr. Sawsan hopes that in the future, more younger players can find even greater success, and of the players on that path now is Adnan Sayed Ehsan. “He is part of the Asia Olympic Project (AOP) and is also part of the Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, as an athlete with the potential to qualify for the Olympics in the next 2 cycles.” she proudly tells us. But Bahrain’s first Asian participation goes back all the way to 1983, and Hesham Alabbasi, the Secretary General, was one of the team members in the Bahrain team who achieved many titles in the Arab Championship and a few other international titles. 


Thriving Through Challenges


Throughout his badminton career both as a player and as a member of the federation, Hesham has seen the changes of the sports, all the ups and the downs. “When I first played, there were many leagues and clubs playing badminton. And for some reason, it started to decrease when it was supposed to be better. But now, for the last 5 years it’s come back.” A lot of this come back, he says, is due to the leadership of Dr. Sawsan, for which he was full of praise “Since the 80s, I’ve met with 5 presidents and the best so far has been Dr. Sawsan Taqawi! She’s put in so much of her time and works very hard, and there’s a big difference since she’s been here.” But despite the growth, there are still many things that need to be improved. “We have the issue of not having our own halls to practice freely, but now we have deals with the school. But we’re still not happy with this because we want to have our own hall.” 


The absence of a permanent hall has been one of the major issues for the federation and has been one of the main challenges that they are trying to tackle. “There are 2 main challenges and the first is infrastructure” Dr. Sawsan says “We have a multipurpose hall, but for most of the year we have to find another place for practice like schools. That’s why I signed an agreement with the ministry of education, so the area can be used for students and players”. 


For Hesham, his worries are the same, as his main concern is for the younger players. “When they want to practice in the school hall, suddenly they take the hall and kick them down. This is the main challenge: to have our own hall. It’s a dream come true for me to have our main hall. We can finally practice without anything hindering us.” But not all hope is lost, as Hesham points out: “Luckily with Dr. Sawsan’s help we have some support with the Olympic Committee that are willing to build 2 courts for us. This is a great achievement for us, so we have our own place to play for 24 hours”. 


The second challenge they face is the budget for the growth of the game. “We also have economic challenges, with the economic crisis all over the world led to our budget being lower. When Dr. Sawsan became president, we had half of the budget we had before.” says Hesham. Because of this, the challenge for them is to find sponsorships for the national and international events. “We also have to find sponsors who are aware of badminton. If you have a good reputation in badminton, and you have the players, the achievements, you will get the sponsorship. But if you don’t have it then it will be more difficult. So, overall, we do have budget, but if you want to grow, we always need more”. Dr. Sawsan adds. 


Coping Through Covid-19: Online Training and Keeping Mental Fitness


As the national team coach, Ahmad has had a lot of responsibilities and has had to learn how to adapt to a new environment. One particularly difficult thing he’s had to deal with recently is the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the region, sports and his players. “As with the rest of the world, the pandemic has hit the region causing all sporting activities to stop. No physical training, mostly online. Practices stopped in the last week of March and resumed in the first week of August, and now we have training daily for our seniors” he tells us. Despite having face to face training, they’ve applied all the procedures, including social distancing to maintain safety measures. “Now we play with only 2 to 3 players at a time, we can’t have all of the players play at the same time”.


He’s currently focusing on coaching players like Adnan daily, and once they get the approval, he hopes to bring the other players in, but for now he gives them activities and exercises online for them to do online. “I tried and we did an online session with junior players and it was good, but the players are eager to come back to the court.” These online training sessions haven’t been easy for him and the players as they learn to adapt. The sessions happen 3 times a week, mostly towards physical exercises like footwork, jumping exercises.


Not only has the pandemic affected their physical exercises, but also their mental health. Players have had to change their routines and it hasn’t been easy. Ahmad gives us an insight into what that’s been like for players like Adnan. “He’s disappointed with the situation because he was playing in the Danish league and was performing very well but the pandemic affected him and became mentally upset, but slowly we communicated and spoke with him, we all spoke with him and encouraged him. Now for 2-3 months he’s been practicing daily, we hope for the best in the future.” Good communication between player and coach is key to making sure that the players are healthy both mentally and physically and that’s what Ahmad and the others have been making sure with their players. 


This year has been tough because Ahmad says that they aren’t able to achieve what they want to achieve, and all of their plans haven’t gone the way they wanted. For Ahmad especially, there’s a huge challenge here in Bahrain as he wants to tackle and that’s the lifestyle of the junior players. “In the Arab countries, they are not used to the tough training. If you give them difficult tasks, they get upset. I’m trying to adapt and help them change this. Some players are okay, some players are harder. But I’m trying.” he says. Dr. Sawsan agrees with Ahmad’s viewpoint of the difficulty in tackling the change in lifestyle and adds “Families here concentrate their children to study hard. When it comes to sport, they only time it for 1-2 hours a day. They don’t have that awareness that fitness is important.” She mentions that because of this, awareness of the importance of sport and involvement of parents has become one of their main goals too.


But just because the year hasn’t gone the way they wanted doesn’t mean it was a waste. Ahmad has been involved in a very important project last month with Bahrain TV where they had badminton being played on tv. It is a class where people can participate from 18 sessions. Each session has different topics: footwork, forehand, backhand, about Shuttle Time etc. This is the first time it has happened and these videos can be published on social media as well.


Paving the Road to the Olympics


Innovative programs are used as ways to engage more with the public in order to increase awareness of the sport, which is a long term goal for the federation. To conclude, we asked the 3 of them what their short and long term goals are for the federation and for the sport in general. One of their main goals was the development of young players so that they can achieve great things in the Olympics, hopefully after a few years. “Like Adnan, he is a part of this project, and hopefully he can participate in Tokyo 2021 if all goes well.” said Dr. Sawsan. “Imagine having players start playing at 11/12 when they’re very young and playing hard. Hopefully in the future we’ll have more players.” Hesham adds. Having a player like Adnan is fantastic, but in order to succeed in the future, a team must be built. “I want to build a team and enhance the players to be in a good condition, a good level, and to be able to compete in international levels and achieve titles in Arab and international championships.” Ahmad tells us.


The foundations must be built in order for the sport to grow. According to Dr. Sawsan, they recently signed a contract with the University of Bahrain with the department of Sports, to teach the Shuttle Time program in universities. With this, they hope that it will increase the participation in badminton, especially with students with a background in badminton and sports, to continue their mission to develop badminton in the region. Hesham also hopes that Bahrain becomes the center of badminton in West Asia. “We are the first to play badminton in the region, when I was #1 in Bahrain, I wanted to play in the Arab regions, but there was nobody there (to compete with)”. Bahrain badminton has been around for quite some time, and it’s in their hopes and dreams that Bahrain becomes a center for the continuous growth of badminton within and outside of the region. 



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