The Olympic Games — first founded some 3,000 years ago by the Ancient Greeks — continue to be the premier global sporting event. Athletes the world over are invited to demonstrate their physical prowess by competing in 46 sports, including basketball, swimming, wrestling, surfing, volleyball and tennis. With the Tokyo Games in full swing, each day enthralls global audiences thanks to the dexterity of the athletes.

There is also a collective celebration of athletes who have inspired us with their stories of determination, perseverance and grace to overcome the most complex challenges.

There is widespread evidence of the positive contributions sports can make to society. Needless to say, their physical benefits are noteworthy, such as reducing obesity levels, improving cardiovascular fitness, supporting the healthy growth of bones and muscles, enhancing sleep, and reducing risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Research also shows that participation in sports can improve students’ academic performance, creativity, problem-solving skills, memory, self-esteem, attention span, and ability to absorb new subject materials. Engaging in sports can also cultivate important qualities, such as endurance, teamwork and leadership.

People who are active generally enjoy better mental health, with reduced levels of anxiety, stress and depression. Sports are also known to bring communities together, enhancing social cohesion, embracing migrants and minorities, and instilling civic pride in local or national sports teams. Moreover, the sports sector is considered lucrative to many national economies, as sports events drive international tourism, boost job creation and entail significant consumer spending. It is estimated that the global sports market generates a whopping $756 billion annually, according to research by Sports Value. Dubai, for example, has branded itself as a leading sporting city, attracting more than 300 sports events annually, with an average yearly attendance of 1 million and a total gross output of more than $1.7 billion, according to Deloitte.

It cannot be emphasized enough, then, that the positive contributions of sports are significant.

The Arab world faces many challenges when it comes to physical activity. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in most Arab countries, closely linked to the low physical activity levels among adults. The prevalence of weight problems in adults ranges from 74 to 86 percent among women and 69 to 77 percent among men. Furthermore, low investment in sports programs, a lack of skilled coaches and athletes, and inadequate sports facilities and infrastructure have resulted in a low uptake of sports across various age groups.

A robust sports policy should be formulated to nudge the masses toward embracing physical activity and sports as part of everyday life. Creating a culture that values daily physical activity should start as early as possible within schools. Physical literacy should be part of every school’s curriculum, designed in a way that creates a lifelong affinity for physical activity among children. Playgrounds and walking trails within schools should be designed to maximize physical activity during recess. Children must also be encouraged to take up sports as part of their extracurricular activities to help them achieve the recommended daily amount of physical activity. Schools can also organize interscholastic sports tournaments to inspire healthy competition.

Much investment also needs to be channeled toward establishing sports facilities to ensure quality sporting experiences for children and adults within local communities. There should be a rigorous system for identifying and developing elite performers among a pool of talented athletes. It is equally important to recruit skilled coaches and sports science experts to cultivate raw talents into professionals who can compete on the global stage. Encouraging sports teams to participate in national and international competitions is also important for their development and to instill a sense of civic pride.

Many governments are engaging urban planners to design cities that provide citizens and tourists with ample opportunities for recreational sports, promising moments of fun, social interaction and relaxation. Fantastic examples include attractive, walkable neighborhoods, accessible sports facilities across different communities, locating high streets and schools within walking distance of residential blocks, recreational walking routes, green spaces that encourage sports and physical activity, hiking trails, and cycle lanes.

For the past 30 years, the WHO’s Healthy Cities Network has published valuable insights and case studies from 100 cities that have successfully transformed public spaces to promote physically active lifestyles. For example, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London have reinvented themselves as top cycling cities, while Paris organizes free sports lessons every Sunday morning in various green spaces and sports centers.

Creative public health programs have the power to nudge people into integrating physical activity into their daily routines. In recent years, many social media influencers have inspired people to get active by sharing their daily workout routines, hiking trails in nature spots or hours-long walking tours of cities. For example, Joe Wicks, a British fitness coach and author, has garnered about 7 million followers on Instagram and YouTube from streaming live daily workouts. His short and bubbly videos for children and adults aim at making people healthier and happier through physical movement. He also regularly shares people’s transformative experiences after physical activity helped them overcome various ailments and mental health issues.

Arab governments could benefit immensely from investing in sports programs, from elevating citizen well-being, improving public health and boosting tourism to enhancing social cohesion and driving economic contributions. It is an opportunity that should be seized without hesitation.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at
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