Small squad with big dreams: Nine athletes will represent Jordan in Olympics this summer

Story and photo by Amanda Ostuni

It’s only 9 a.m. but it’s already 82 degrees as Nadin Dawani works out on a faded red track. Her appearance is unexceptional: white Adidas pants and matching sneakers and a grey long sleeve shirt with a Superman logo on the chest. It’s her mission that stands out.

Dawani, 24, is one of nine athletes heading to London this summer hoping to land Jordan its first ever Olympic medal.

Sweating under the blazing sun, she and her teammate Mohammad Abu Libdeh jog, do 50-meter sprints and a drill that the head of the taekwondo coaches, Chen Chiou Hwa, explains is meant to improve coordination.

“In taekwondo, coordination is very important,” said Hwa.

Nadin Dawani is one of nine athletes heading to the Olympics this summer in London. Her hope is to score a gold medal in taekwondo for her country. It would be Jordan’s first medal ever in the games.

Dawani, Libdeh and their other teammate Dana Haider are the three Jordanian taekwondo athletes who qualified to head to the Olympics this summer. Only two other athletes – boxer Ihab Darweesh and equestrian Ibrahim Bisharat – also qualified to represent the country.

Jordan does have four other athletes who will go to London as wild cards, a designation to countries who the International Olympic Committee believes need a special boost to become competitive. Those athletes can compete, but they’re not expected to earn a medal.

What’s more, taekwondo, a fighting-based sport in which the athletes try to knock out the competition over the course of three two-minute rounds with a minute’s rest in between, is a sport in which Jordan has always stood out. In 1988, two members of the team did actually win bronze medals. But because taekwondo was a demonstration sport at the time, the medals didn’t count.

This year is Jordan’s ninth Olympic appearance since joining the games in 1980 and the country’s hopes are pinned to these athletes competing in individual sports. The only Jordanian team sport to contend so far for a spot in the 2012 Olympics was the football (soccer) team, though the basketball team will participate in a qualifying tournament beginning with a game against Greece July 2, then a game against Puerto Rico July 3. If they make it to and win the semi-final round July 7, they will have earned a spot in the Olympics.

It doesn’t bother Dawani that her country is outnumbered.

“You feel proud you are representing a small country that still has great athletes,” she said.

Hamzeh Hassan, communications center employee at the Jordan Olympic Committee (JOC), is optimistic about this year’s team, both because it contains the first Olympic Jordanian boxer and because it is a record-breaking number of athletes competing for the country.

“We’re planning on [achieving a] gold because we have a chance,” he said, “but we’ll take any medal.”

The JOC became the umbrella for all things sports in Jordan in 2001, by order of a royal decree established by King Abdullah II. Prince Feisal Al Hussein currently serves as committee president and the organization has been working to expand Jordan’s athletic status and opportunities across the board.

“We’ve updated rules and laws for sports, started bringing in more money for sports, we’ve hosted world championships,” said Hassan, stressing that the JOC is working to enhance Jordanian sports.

Athletes such as Dawani provide hope. The accomplished star is one of the best Jordan has, as she was the first woman from Jordan to qualify for the Olympics for the games in Athens in 2004. Just a teenager then, she came within one win of receiving a bronze medal, finishing fifth.

She began her taekwondo career at a young age. “When I was 9, I saw my little brother when he went to a taekwondo club and I wanted to try it so I did and continued it,” Dawani said later that hot June day, driving home after her two-hour training session during which she and Libdeh did taekwondo basics training.

“Taekwondo…is all in the brain, hands and legs. It’s about 30 percent legs, 70 percent hands and all mind,” said Dawani of the sport, for which they train in a variety of ways such as running and weight lifting.

When Dawani joined the national team in 2001 she started to love the “art” and the competition and knew taekwondo had become more than a hobby.

“Of course you have to give things up, your social life should be limited,” said Dawani on life as a professional athlete. “[But] I love what I do.”

However, because the sport is not successful professionally and Jordan isn’t a country where professional athletes are financially set for life, she attained a business administration degree from the University of Jordan and then a job in the business development department of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company. When she manages to find free time, she spends it with her parents, 21-year-old brother Khalil, her fiancé Rami Khano and her friends.

Forat Tarawneh is a 21-year-old judo player who is a fan of taekwondo and Jordan’s athletes in the sport. He is a member of the Facebook fan page for his favorite athlete, Dana Haider, and says, via an email interview, “she represents the example that young athletes want to be like her to reach the Olympics in accordance with the capabilities of a poor country as Jordan.”

Dawani hopes that by being successful, she and her fellow athletes will set an example in a country where women are not expected to play competitive sports.

“I wish we could change the mentality of people here and in the Arab world in general,” said Dawani. “In Jordan it’s been getting better. Day by day the idea of girls fighting is more accepted.”

For her, London will represent a final push for a medal. Regardless of the outcome, Dawani is calling it quits and getting married in October. That doesn’t mean she’s giving up the sport entirely. She said she might open up a club to help teach children her sport.

But for now, she is focused on bringing honor to her country and hopes her teammates are able to as well.

“We’re a small country,” said Dawani, “but we have the ability to be something.”