Sports enthusiasts spoilt for choice

By Tanya Lunn » Several years ago, you might have been hard-pushed to put Bahrain on the international sporting map. All that changed, though, on 4th April 2004 when this small island kingdom roared onto the international racing scene staging it’s first ever Formula One Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher, driving a Ferrari, won the Middle East’s inaugural F-1 race, to the delight of fans watching at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) and around the globe.

For Schumacher, it was his 73rd career victory, but for Bahrain it marked the triumphant culmination of two years’ intensive work building the US$150 million track in the heart (and heat!) of the desert. The atmosphere in the Kingdom at the time was electric – no-one could help but become caught up in the ‘F1 Fever’ that gripped the country for a few days last April – and deservedly so.

The whine of those incredible engines as the cars themselves, bright specks against the start white landscape, tore across the desert thrilled even the sceptics amongst us. Palm trees against the blue, blue sky and that distinctive white tower and then the totally unexpected rain on the day itself - F1 had never been quite like this before! Accolades poured in from all quarters for the world’s newest racing circuit – and in December 2004, the world governing body of motorsport, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), recognised the country’s achievement by awarding Bahrain the Race Promoters’ Trophy for the best organised Grand Prix during the year.

The trophy is awarded annually to the Grand Prix that has proved most helpful in the most difficult conditions. Nomination for the trophy is always fiercely contested and Bahrain faced stiff opposition from a number of countries including Australia and China, where the Shanghai Grand Prix was run for the first time in 2004. Designed by internationally respected consultancy Tilke & Partners, the Bahrain International Circuit is the first of its kind in the Middle East and the most advanced in the world.

Now the home of Formula One Grand Prix racing in the Arab world, Bahrain International Circuit offers six integrated motorsport facilities including the Formula One Grand Prix Track; an Inner Track for testing, club events, a racing school and driver training activities; and an Outer Track for all classes of racing, incentive events, manufacturer engine, tyre and component testing.

These are complemented by a distinctive VIP viewing tower incorporating hospitality suites; grandstands and spectator areas accommodating 70,000; an international broadcast centre, a media centre for 500 journalists, team buildings, merchandising areas, helicopter and light aircraft landing facilities. Nowadays, it seems that no matter where one travels in the world, at the mention of the name ‘Bahrain’, faces light up as recognition dawns: “Ah yes, Bahrain – haven’t they just had a Grand Prix?” The answer is very definitely ‘Yes!’

When friends heard that I was heading off to an adventurous new life in Bahrain nine years ago, Formula One was the last thing on their minds. Naturally, people were quick to offer advice on adjusting to life in a very different environment to that of New Zealand. “You won’t be able to take the cats, of course. No one keeps pets in the Gulf,” one authority on the subject told me, having spent a fortnight with friends in Dubai.

“There’s nothing to do there. You can’t even have a nice garden in the desert,” said my neighbour’s mother who knew a pilot working for an Arabian airline.

“Well, sports will be a distant memory for you up in the Middle East. I guess they swim and play a bit of tennis and of course you could ride horses if you’re into controlling wild Arab stallions. But as for cricket and rugby – well, I couldn’t go there!” lamented a keen triathlete who water skis and goes fishing in any spare time left over after watching his kids play mini-rugby at the weekend.

Nine years, one dog, two cats, five rabbits, a hamster, eight birds and 47 fish later, I’m just planning a trip to the garden centre for another load of petunias to brighten up the patio as the lawnmower roars past the cascading bougainvillaea and hibiscus that frame the grass in our palm-dotted garden.

And sports? Our family enjoys regular sailing – competitive and recreational– at the Bahrain Yacht Club; golf and squash (on a rather erratic basis, though keen squash players can join a number of leagues run by sporting clubs). Our daughters also play netball and learn Zen-Do Kickboxing and some of their friends play touch-rugby.

Yes… there is rugby in Bahrain! Bahrain Rugby Club’s grounds in Saar provide excellent grass playing fields for the country’s rugby matches against visiting teams from as far afield as Ireland. There have even been ‘friendlies’ versus teams from, among others, visiting New Zealand Navy ships (something that would surely gladden the heart of my Kiwi friend whose kids, incidentally, could join a mini rugby training team at the Rugby Club with ease).

As it happens, the largely expatriate Bahrain rugby team is one of the strongest sides in the Gulf. Other sports played at the Rugby Club include soccer, netball and circuit training, while the addition in 2001 of a new pool has led to the recent introduction of swim training squads – mixed, ladies’ and junior groups. There’s a wealth of activity for children at the Club, including ‘Swimrite’; a Junior Netball League for girls aged seven to 13; ‘Golf for Kids’ and ‘Play Ball for Kids’ which teaches a range of ball coordination skills for two-to-nine year olds. Call the Club on 17695809 for more information.

The cricket nets at the Rugby Club provide a popular training spot for many would-be fast bowlers, but a great deal of the real cricket action takes place in the outfield of Bahrain’s abundant empty lots. From Sanabis to Sitra and Manama to Muharraq, the ‘thwack’ of leather on willow resonates around the surrounding buildings as the pride of the resident Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cricketing fraternity take each other on. Most of the country’s better cricket pitches are to be found in Riffa, in the desert area just below the Riffa escarpment.

Cricket leagues flourish and the standard is very high, with several players having played at a senior level in India. Matches between clubs such as the Bahrain Cricket Club and the Indian Cricket Club, for example, attract a high spectator turnout. The Bahrain Cricket Association (tel 9633298) can tell you more.

If you’re on holiday and would like to join a friendly game you could always try the Awali Cricket Club which plays at the 65-year-old Awali Oval. Social games take place there on Thursday afternoons and there’s even tea in the pavilion. The phone number for the club is 17756959.

Cricket is not a game with a great following among Bahrainis – but soccer is an entirely different matter. This is perhaps the most popular sport in the Middle East and almost a national obsession, with every village sporting a pair of goal posts at either end of a sandy football pitch. Bahrain’s youths turn out in force for sundown kick-arounds and many have gone on to play for their local club. There are 26 football clubs in the country, 18 of them in the premier league.

Call the Bahrain Football Association (17685775 – Ebrahim after 4pm) for information on upcoming matches.

Another game loved by Bahrainis is basketball. Regular matches are scheduled in the Juffair Dome, where international fixtures take place. If you’d like to catch a game, the Bahrain Basketball Association (17741010) can give you a list of upcoming games.

Waterskiing, once the favourite sport of this family, has taken a back seat for us – not because of lack of facilities, of which there are many, but due to a renewed interest in competitive sailing. Of course, if you’re visiting Bahrain on holiday, you should find boats keen to take you out at all the leading beach resorts and watersports clubs.

Boating and sailing are, naturally enough for an island nation where the temperature of the shallow coastal waters is pleasant year-round, very popular and relatively easy to arrange. You may be lucky enough to find that your hosts are among the considerable number of people in the country who own a boat, but if not, try the Bahrain Yacht Club (17700677) or Zallaq Sailing Club (17836078) – the former also offers boat trips out to see the dolphins – a magical experience that we have shared with visiting friends and relatives on several occasions. Once, we recommended to a Bahraini friend that he take his children out dolphin watching at the weekend – a trip that left him awestruck!

If you’re a competitive sailor, see if you can hitch a ride crewing in a Cruiser Fleet race (call the Cruiser Fleet Captain on 17590730), or maybe even in the annual Cable & Wireless Regatta, which will take place at the Bahrain Yacht Club in November 2005. There’s also an Open Regatta at the Club in May.

Those who prefer to let others do the work can hire private dhows for day trips. These traditional Gulf boats offer a unique way of seeing some of the outlying islands (fashts), most of them barely more than sandbars. The cost of hiring a dhow means you’ll probably need a group to make it cost-effective, but it’s amazing how easy it is to persuade people into taking a dhow trip! Be prepared to bring your own food and drink, not to mention plenty of sun protection. The experience is well worth it, and guaranteed to make memories that will linger long after the tan has faded.

Another exciting boat adventure to take is the journey to Hawar, a glittering jewel of a beach resort set in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf south-east of Bahrain’s main island. Not only are the beach and swimming pool facilities superb, there are ample opportunities for sailors and fishermen to enjoy their sport, while paddle boats, kayaks, jetskis, pushbikes, quad bikes and two-wheel scooters can be hired from the hotel. Trips around the island may also be arranged, and the resort boasts floodlit tennis courts. Call 17849111 for details (17290377 for reservations).

Because of the high insurance risk, it’s not as easy as it used to be to hire jetskis so it helps to know someone who owns one if you’re into that sport. However, jetskiing is available at the Ritz Carlton (17580000). The Ritz boasts a superb white sandy beach fringed by date palms, a lagoon and a man-made island, not to mention a luxurious indoor/outdoor pool complex. The resort offers the chance to go water-skiing, windsurfing, sailing and kayaking or take a ride on a pedalo or ‘banana’. There is a fully equipped Marina at the Ritz Carlton.

Fishing is another popular pastime in Bahrain and you should be able to find someone willing to take you out to try your luck from the Yacht Club - in 2001, a stingray weighing in at over 50kg took first prize in a fishing competition so there are some pretty big fish out there…

Seeing marine life in its natural habitat can also be enjoyed year-round in Bahrain’s warm waters. Most watersports clubs offer dive courses, but if you’re a qualified diver and you’d like to go exploring beneath the waves – well, ripples really in these tranquil waters! – you should contact Aquatique (17271780), which offers guided dives starting at BD35 for two dives (BD30 if you have your own equipment). Marine turtles, dolphins and dugong are all to be found among the brilliantly-coloured fish that populate Bahrain’s waters.

Underwater visibility is best in the summer and some divers have been lucky enough to find their own Bahraini pearls. When booking a dive, be prepared to show your diving certification card.

It goes without saying that ice-skating was one of those sports we thought we’d have to forgo in Bahrain, and I am happy to report that we were wrong! You can even take lessons from a former Scottish Figure Skating Champion at Bahrain’s recently upgraded ice rink in the Funland Centre, on the Al Fateh Corniche. I think one of my enduring memories of life in Bahrain will be the incongruous sight of Arab men gliding gracefully around the rink clad in traditional national dress of the long white thobe and ghutra headdress, designed to keep the wearer cool under a blistering desert sun! Ice Hockey is also played at the rink – call 17292313 for timings.

Running is a pastime enjoyed by many, and if competitive running is in your blood, you might want to get in touch with the Bahrain Cross Country and Road Runners (CCRR) Club. The club organises races, varying in distance from 3km to a full marathon, every weekend and visitors are welcome to enter for the nominal sum of 500 fils (call Adnan Al-Qassab on 17689320 or check out

Hash House Harriers, the international social runners’ organisation, has a chapter in Bahrain comprising around 100 members. The Hash meets on Mondays at 5pm and runs are followed by a barbecue. All comers are welcome so if you’re here on a business trip and want to keep in shape, why not join them? You can obtain recorded directions to meets by calling 17862620.

Arabia is home to some of the world’s finest horses and the tradition of horsemanship goes back thousands of years in the Middle East, where it is a deeply-rooted passion. Today, show jumping, flat racing and endurance riding combine to form a horse scene that keeps riders busy throughout the year. Casual riders are welcomed at most stables. Try the Dilmun Club (17690926) in Saar; Twin Palms (17591668) at Shakhoora or the Country Club (17593593) in Janussan, all of which offer riding lessons and hacking for riders of all ages and abilities.

If equine speed is your thing, you can enjoy a day at Bahrain’s national racecourse at Sakhir. Organised by the Equestrian and Horse Racing Club, race meetings are held on Fridays from October to May and feature some of the Gulf’s finest horses from Bahrain’s Amiri Court stables. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family has a deep love of horses and racing and keenly monitors the breeding programmes of both traditional Arab horses as well as thoroughbreds. The country has four official stud farms, breeding around 1,500 registered thoroughbred foals annually.

Land speed of a different type can be enjoyed at the ‘arrive and drive’ Seef Karting Track where you can test your skill on a variety of Rotax and Prokarts karts of varying engine sizes. At the time of writing, this is the only go-karting circuit in the Kingdom, but there are understood to be plans afoot to open a privately funded track on land adjacent to the Bahrain International Circuit (F1).

Of course not everyone likes their excitement in such an adrenaline-pumping manner. If you prefer the quieter pursuits of Mah Jong, chess, bridge or Scrabble you will find groups who meet regularly to play all of these.

Bahrain’s Scrabble League celebrated its 20th Anniversary in December 2004 and plans to mark the occasion with a celebratory Grand Tournament in June 2005. The league is something of a legend in the area, and its chairman, Roy Kietzman, is known as ‘The Grandad of Gulf Scrabble’, travelling by invitation throughout the Gulf and India to run tournaments. The league has around 40 players and meets twice weekly, on Mondays at the Hilton and on. Players of all abilities are welcome at the meetings, which are organised by the Bahrain Mind Sports Association (BMSA) – call 17242641 for more information.

Also under the umbrella of BMSA are clubs for chess (call 39455902) and bridge, played on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays with Ladies’ Mornings on Sundays and Tuesdays (contact 39687190). Dama, an unusual variation of draughts thought to have originated in Turkey, also has a strong following in Bahrain, particularly in Muharraq. Dama players meet to play regular tournaments and apparently Bahrain’s Dutch community provides some particularly strong players though Bahrainis tend to rule the roost!

To get back to those two sports that my friend thought would be on offer in Bahrain, namely tennis and swimming, well, he was right! You can swim just about everywhere. There’s the sea, of course, and I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to the number of swimming pools on the island – it must run into the thousands.

Tennis courts are similarly ubiquitous and the game is played by so many people at so many places, it’s hard to know where to start. All resorts and sporting clubs offer tennis coaching and joining a tennis ladder is easy. Try the Tennis Federation on 17687236.

What else can you do in Bahrain? Gymnasia and fitness centres are to be found at health and sports clubs throughout the island and all the five-star hotels have gyms with resident instructors and trainers.

Ten pin bowling has seen an upsurge in popularity since the opening of the new 12-lane Bahrain Bowling Centre at the Seef complex. There’s a superb 18-lane bowling alley at the Funland Centre (in the same building as the ice rink) where a number of leagues play weekly fixtures – this is conveniently located for visitors staying in the Diplomatic Area or Juffair. You can also bowl at the Busheri Bowling Centre in Budaiya and at Al Bander Resort, and there’s short-lane ‘neon’ bowling at Magic Island in Seef Mall which is popular with kids.

All this is certainly more than enough to keep the average sports enthusiast extremely busy for several years – the only problem is that work tends to get rather annoyingly in the way.

Meanwhile, before I get back to my golf lessons, the roses need watering – the Bahrain Garden Club will be holding its 40th Annual Horticultural and Flower Show in March and I may be in with a chance! We’ve pretty much trained the dog not to dig everything up now.