Of the 18 athletes Saudi Arabia sent to the 2012 Olympics, international media focused its attention on the two female athletes who were representing the country for the first time. In the local media, however, the two teenage girls were mostly ignored.
Instead, local media chose to feature the show jumping team which won a bronze medal after placing third behind Great Britain and the Netherlands.
“I think what happened was beyond expectations,” Prince Abdullah bin Miteb, leader of the team, told the media after their win.
Saudi Arabiaʹs best prior result in the sport came 12 years ago when rider Khaled al-Eid won the individual jumping bronze at the Sydney Olympics.
The surprise win was widely welcomed and celebrated, but it brought attention to an organization that was little known before. The organization is called the Saudi Equestrian Fund (SEF). It was established in late 2009 through a royal decree by King Abdullah, grandfather of the team leader.
The idea behind the fund was to buy great horses that can compete and achieve success on international level. Saudi Arabia had great riders, chef dʹequipe Rogier van Iersel told Reuters, but they lacked horse power. Van Iersel, who is from the Netherlands and has been working with the Saudi team for six years, said the creation of SEF helped to provide resources to buy the horses.
A lot of money is needed to acquire horses that can win at the Olympic level. The cost of horses like the ones mounted by Saudi riders in London “can run into millions of dollars,” according to Reuters.
“Anyone knows that the horses we have are not cheap horses,” van Iersel said, but he did not provide any information on the budget set by SEF to buy horses. Such matters, he told the agency, are the handled of the board of directors.
Prince Turki bin Abdullah, chairman of the board, said the figures reported by international media to estimate how much they spent to buy the horses are incorrect.
“Those figures are false,” he told reporters during a press conference Saturday in Jeddah. “There are teams who had bigger budgets than SEF and they did not win at the Olympics.”
However, when Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, chairman of the board of trustees at SEF, talked to the press after the Saudi team won the bronze medal, he mentioned a figure that is certainly not small.
“What has been spent on equestrianism in the Kingdom has reached 40 million euros ($49 million),” Prince Faisal said, according to al-Yaum daily newspaper.
He said SEF is being supported by the King, but he also thanked businessmen for their support and added that he hopes this Olympic win would attract more businesses to support the fund.
Both Prince Fisal and Prince Turki, along with equestrian fans, gave a hero welcome to the show jumpers as they arrived to Jeddah Airport Saturday. The team was later received by King Abdullah who decorated them with the country’s top honor.
Ali Shaherkani, father of the first Saudi female athlete to compete at the Olympics, told al-Sharq newspaper last week that he had to pay all expenses for his daughter’s participation, including the cost of training camps and plane tickets.
“No one at the Saudi Olympic Committee promised to reimburse me, and I don’t really care,” Shaherkani said.
“My daughter’s participation is the true honor.”