On a run one day through Amman’s Al Hussein Youth City in her native Jordan, Batoul Arnaout noticed she had little company — and had only to look around to discover why.
Too much trash strewn about. Too many smokers.
“A lot of athletes who used to jog or walk there had stopped showing up because of the bad environment,” she recalled in an email to TeamUSA.org.
So Arnaout began a campaign to clean up the track, and was surprised to see 100 volunteers show up for the first assault — a good lesson, she said, in “how much you can do if you engage the community.” From that seed, she registered a community athletic development project she named Better Opportunities and Options for Sports Today, or BOOST, that’s now a year-and-a-half old with a handful of projects already to its name.
And for the next three weeks, the 36-year-old Arnaout will be in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s Global Sports Mentoring Program. As part of the Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative, she’s been paired with Alicia McConnell, director of training sites and community partnerships for the United States Olympic Committee, with the hope of discovering new tools to further grassroots sports growth back in Jordan.
Sports have been a driver in Arnaout’s life since she got hooked on taekwondo at age 5. Beyond achieving her black belt in that sport, she also played for seven years on Jordan’s national squash team before an elbow injury turned her to running and, especially, cycling — which became a social cause as well as an athletic one.
“When I started around 10 years ago, cycling was not acceptable for women in my culture,” she said. “I used to be the only female among a group of guys and get lots of stares. I think the reason is that riding a bike somehow resembles freedom, which is something mostly restricted to men versus women in our community.
“This made me more determined to challenge my society … I kept riding my bicycle and promoting this sport to females, and now I can say that women’s cycling is growing in our country and you can see more ladies on the bikes in our streets.”
Some of her early efforts to grow sports participation in Jordan were launched in community outreach through LG Electronics, where she formerly served as a regional public relations manager. One project — aimed at developing talented but at-risk youth in soccer — earned recognition from FIFA.
“I always felt determined and responsible to change and support sports and athletes in my country,” Arnaout said. “I have experienced corruption and bad management with several sport federations and organizations, and I came across lots of talented athletes who are not getting the support they deserve.”
That’s at the heart of a program she started last year through BOOST called “Help Them Become Champions,” and so far about 200 young athletes in need have received apparel, shoes and equipment.
She also partnered with Cycling Jordan to stage The 100 Cycling Challenge to promote the growth of the sport, with components for tourism and charity, as well. The initial event raised $5,000 for a cycling team from one of Jordan’s poorest regions. Building the first mountain biking trail in Amman National Park is another project taking shape.
Her public relations background and connections have been effective tools in creating awareness — and her own sports background has made her particularly attuned to needs and gaps in her country’s support of recreational and competitive opportunities.
She’s identified some specific shortcomings. Among them: no clear national strategic plan for sports, unbalanced distribution of resources (both by gender and geography), no attention to developing a strong participation base and lack of facilities and infrastructure.
She’s hoping that through McConnell’s mentorship, she can reach out to experts “and those who share the same passion for sports” and gain insight into best practices and strategies she can apply at home.
Specifically, she wants to develop a five-year plan for her BOOST initiative and take the program nationwide as “a sustainable, structured project.”
For Arnaout, it’s about growing the transformative opportunities of sport and sharing joys she’s already experienced.
“Sports have always been a major part of my life,” she said. “It is as essential as water and food for me, and helped reveal and build the person I am today.”
John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.