Last week the Bahrain Endurance 13 team announced that professional triathlete and President of TriEqual, Sara Gross, would be joining the team. Gross brings her experience and expertise not only as a professional triathlete but she also has a Ph.D. in Ancient History and Religion with a dissertation in the field of women’s history. We speak to Gross to ascertain what exactly her role consists of, delve a little further into any concerns and issues that may have arisen since the announcement and discuss the positive influence Gross hopes to have in this new role.

 

Q&A by Witsup | Images by Delly Carr|Bahrain Endurance 13

 

W: From what we understand, your role with Bahrain Endurance has a lot to do with media, communications and social commitments. Can you talk us through your actual role/job description?

SG: My contract is a little different to the other athletes’ in that it has a longer list of media requirements. I still get to race as part of the team but there is less emphasis on performance. Instead, I will focus some of my energy on writing and other media work that I enjoy.

Specifically, I think they looked to me because I have both the experience and the inclination to be a spokesperson for team members on Middle East matters. My contract calls for the following: help educate aspiring athletes and people who want to live a healthy life in Bahrain; provide Bahrain National Team updates; create content about health and wellness, Bahraini culture and women in sport.

Since I went to high school in the United Arab Emirates and my family called that country home for 20 years, this is a perfect opportunity for me. I have also been to Bahrain on a number of occasions as my Mom spent five years just over the causeway in Saudi Arabia.
 
W: How did this opportunity arise?

SG: Good question. It was because of Witsup! After I wrote Heroines in Hijab in July, I started talking to the Communications Manager for the Team. I was on one hand frustrated by the way the dialogue around the team was going in some corners of the triathlon press, and on the other hand, frustrated by the team for their lack of engagement on important issues. That said, now that I am part of the team, I know that they made a decision to keep the focus on triathlon, results and positive change. And rightly so.

I was also intrigued by the Bahraini and Saudi women who participate in triathlon. In the Emirates, I never knew any local women who did triathlon, so I really wanted to get over to Bahrain and talk to these women. I have so many questions about how they compete in triathlon in their culture milieu. I mean, talk about bucking western stereotypes!

We hatched a plan for me to attend the team camp in Bahrain last November, collect some interviews, talk to local people and find out what was going on over there. Our plan was eventually turned down, but then in December, out of the blue, I was offered a one year athlete/media contract. The contract is perfect for me because it allows me to be an athlete for another year and continue with the media work I have been doing. I really want to highlight some of the great things that this team is doing.

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W: In the moments after announcing your role there was the expected backlash, particularly with regards to your position as President of Triequal – an organisation dedicated to fairness, progress, and equality in the sport of triathlon. With the allegations of torture/human rights abuse against His Highness Shaikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa – the Prince behind the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, how has the Triequal team responded to your appointment and how do you respond to those questions raised about this potential conflict of interest?

SG: First of all, I strongly believe that allegations are allegations and that there is no way that myself or TriEqual or anyone else can condemn someone whom the courts have not. I will leave justice to the justice system and allow my own impression of His Highness to be formed when I meet him.

TriEqual has been supportive of my membership on the team because we all share the belief that change can come from within and that this opportunity can be used to enhance communication with our Muslim sisters. Of course there were some concerns that people would not understand what I am trying to achieve, but most of the board members know me and do not doubt my motives.  In the end I can’t avoid what I know is right because individuals might not understand what I’m trying to do.

 

W: Speaking of meeting the Prince, do you know how you are supposed/allowed to greet him? Do you know how greetings differ between men and women with the Prince? Let’s set the record straight.

SG: I’ve met a couple important Sheikhs and Sheikhas in my time. Greetings will change from culture to culture and tribe to tribe so I can only tell you what I know. I know that regardless of gender you would address His Highness as “Your Highness,” maybe “Your Excellency.” It would be rude not to. I would not extend my hand first but wait for his lead. Both men and women would do the same. Many Sheikhs have been educated in the West and are used to being around other cultures, so its difficult to make a blunder because they often understand where you are coming from.
 
W: Can you elaborate more on this quote from your blog: “while human rights abuses must be deplored, to focus solely on that is to focus on one tile in a mosaic”?

SG: When we talk about the Middle East we absolutely need to talk about Human Rights. Lets talk about how some people are using Islam as a reason to terrorize the West. Lets also talk about how the rights of Arabs and other peoples were violated throughout the 20th century by colonial powers. Lets talk about how the West continued that trend in the current century and how all of these are contributing factors to the current unrest in the region, including the rise of ISIL.

In Bahrain, there is a volatile situation in which the Shia majority population have felt exploited and leaders have been imprisoned. The US has been complicit in this because stability in Bahrain is essential if the country will continue to house the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. This base is important to the US because of its proximity to Iran and the region in general. There are many other factors as well. If we are going to talk about politics in Bahrain, we need to look at every angle.

And lets not forget that we are talking about a triathlon team. I’d really like to talk about the ways the team is helping local triathletes in Bahrain, about the obesity problem and even about whether they know how make to a good falafel. Lets talk about all of it.
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W: We assume you didn’t make this decision lightly. What were some of your concerns moving into this role, and as a proactive person who fights for equality, what were some of the opportunities that you foresaw that ultimately led you to your decision?

SG: Aside from the personal concerns about being away from my family more than I was prepared to be this year, the main concern was that the conversation around the Bahrain team had been so narrowly focused that people would misunderstand my decision – that there would be an assumption I was being paid big money for silence on political commentary. Ironically, the opposite is true.

For starters, the money is not very much. Secondly, I was already in conversation with the team because I really wanted the opportunity to go back to the Middle East, learn as much as I can, and talk about it.
 
W: The Bahrain Endurance 13 Team’s vision is to promote a culture of health and wellness and endurance sporting excellence across the Gulf region and beyond. How do you specifically hope to make a difference?

SG: Great question. The Gulf region has a growing obesity and diabetes problem because they went from a nomadic, tribal existence to city living in a space of about 30 years. Western foods were introduced very quickly and it has created problems. A team like this has the opportunity to inspire people. Some of the best athletes in the world are on it, but without the ability to communicate effectively with the local people and without the right people in the right places to create the pathways they want to create, then nothing will happen.

While the other athletes must focus on athletic endeavours (because that’s what it takes to win) I have the freedom to train and race, yes, but I also hope I can be a bit of a bridge culturally, someone who understands both cultures and can help the team bond. I want to get to know and write about local athletes. I want to help the local athletes get to know the pros. I hope to provide both inspiration and motivation for the people of Bahrain and create increased cultural understanding in the triathlon community.

I am under no illusion that I can do all this alone. But I will contribute what I can.

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W: So lets talk triathlon globally. How do you feel a team like this can have a positive affect on our sport on a global scale?
SG: A team like this has huge potential to change the landscape of triathlon. First, there’s the money side. The first million-dollar prize in our sport was awarded last month -to a woman- because of His Highness and this team. Many of our best elite athletes are able to focus on their training and racing just a little bit more. The bonus structure of the team is such that the Bahraini National Team benefits every time someone wins a race.  Our successes are shared. I am personally working with the Communication Manager to create content that will expand the dialogue on many levels. Its really cool to think that our little sport can have this kind of positive impact.
 
W: “[There are] preconceived ideas and biases about the women in the Middle East and their participation in sport.” You wrote about this in your Heroines in Hijab piece last year. Can you elaborate a little further here?

SG: When my family first moved to the Middle East, my father was hired as the Director of a Women’s College. Spending time with the women at the college taught me that things are not as they seem. I think we sometimes see Muslim women as oppressed first before anything else. But what we need to see are women. Women who, in my experience, use every opportunity to gain power in their environment. Women who, like us, have had to navigate a patriarchal society and find ways to make change. The goal posts are very different, but the struggles are essentially the same.

If we are going to have a conversation about women in sport, we can not leave our Muslim sisters behind.

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W: When we heard the announcement we reached out to you and suggested that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette – we foresee a bit of a battle for you ahead (which has already started), but believe there is a bigger picture in sight – what is the bigger picture for you?

SG: For me the bigger picture is about how sport can help people from very different places understand each other. What could be more critical in our time than a productive dialogue about health and wellness with the people of the Middle East? What could be better than a shared joy in swimming, biking and running that at the simplest level connects our humanity? This is the potential that I see for the Bahrain Endurance Team.
 
W: And finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to those who have questioned your decision, and in turn, your integrity?

SG: With this contract came an opportunity. I understand fully what I have taken on and at the end of the day, I decided it was better to go out and do something than stay home and be safe. Additionally, I truly believe that this team can and will do great things and I am honoured to be part of it.

About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP Serious about what I do, but don't take myself too seriously

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6 Responses

  1. Amy

    Good luck to Sara as she tackles whatever comes her way this year. My only comment on the article is that I personally don’t think Sara should have to defend her decision to make this career move as in my opinion it’s hers and hers alone to make.

    Reply
  2. Ed O'Malley

    “First of all, I strongly believe that allegations are allegations and that there is no way that myself or TriEqual or anyone else can condemn someone whom the courts have not. I will leave justice to the justice system and allow my own impression of His Highness to be formed when I meet him.”

    LOL. Let’s not mention that the “justice system” in Bahrain is controlled by “His Highness’s” family… I’m sure it can be counted on to fairly and blindly pursue justice when the alleged criminal is a member of the royal family. To put so much passion into the 50Q and characterizing it as a terrible injustice to women, but to so easily dismiss the issues of women’s rights in Bahrain when they want to give you a paycheck requires some really deep sand to bury your head in. Or just outright hypocrisy.

    Reply
    • Sara Gross

      Hi Ed,

      Your comment highlights one of the reasons I want to engage with this team. The allegations against HH were brought against him in the UK. If we are to understand this situation, we should always look to be accurate, aim to see the bigger picture and understand everything that is at stake.

      Thanks.
      Sara

      Reply
      • Ed O'Malley

        Are you saying that joining the team and taking money from Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa will provide you with access and protection to fully and fairly investigate the allegations that he jailed and personally tortured Bahraini athletes that advocated for democracy? Will you advocate for a fair and independent judiciary to take up your findings in a court of law? Of course you will not do these things. Even if you were able to rise above the conflict of interest you have due to the fact you earn your living from him, you would be jailed, and possibly even tortured by him personally if you did any of these things. But yeah… other than that, your comment makes a lot of sense.

  3. Ed O'Malley

    Are you saying that joining the team and taking money from Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa will provide you with access and protection to fully and fairly investigate the allegations that he jailed and personally tortured Bahraini athletes that advocated for democracy? Will you advocate for a fair and independent judiciary to take up your findings in a court of law? Of course you will not do these things. Even if you were able to rise above the conflict of interest you have due to the fact you earn your living from him, you would be jailed, and possibly even tortured by him personally if you did any of these things. But yeah… other than that, your comment makes a lot of sense.

    Reply
    • Sara Gross

      I’m sorry Ed, but i think you misunderstand my role. I am not an investigative journalist.

      I am an athlete who wants to make a difference by writing about health and wellness and other issues relating to triathlon in the Middle East. It is a role I am well suited for and something I want to do.

      Reply

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