Alan Hubbard

Nelson Mandela was bang on the button when he declared: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than Governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."

That was in 1990 when he was released from his long incarceration to lead South Africa out of its abominable apartheid system. Sport was a major factor in ending it following the international opprobrium when English cricketer Basil D’Oliveira was deemed persona non grata to play in South Africa because of his colour. Thus the sports boycotts began.

I had visited South Africa during its apartheid days and found it a distinctly unlovable country. Indeed, I suspect my contacts book is still somewhere in the Government vaults, nabbed when police raided my hotel room while I was out.

All that has changed of course thanks to Mandela and world opinion. South Africa has become accepted back into global society - and international sport.

Mandela recognised the power of sport. During his time in prison he strongly supported international boycotts of South African teams at international sports events. South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 to 1992 and suspended by different International Federations. Mandela supported the Makana football league, established by prisoners on Robben Island. Due to his imprisonment in solitary confinement he was unable to play, but the Makana Football Association used football as a symbol of dignity and freedom on the island.

Now it seems it is the turn of another but still unsweetened SA - Saudi Arabia - to try and convince us that things are changing in a country which I have also visited and found deeply lacking in basic human rights and distastefully opposed to the emancipation of women not only in sport but all walks of life.

However, it now seems quite desperate to read itself of such opprobrium and at least find its place on the sporting stage by relaxing some of its discriminatory laws to allow major sports events to be held there.

These have included Formula One, international golf tournaments and, only recently, of all sports, boxing.

Two big fights have been held in Jeddah, which has become a small coastal oasis of liberalism in a desert of discrimination, where Britain’s George Groves and Callum Smith contested the World Series boxing super-middleweight final and Amir Khan engaged in fistic combat against a knock-over Aussie Billy Dibb, all aided by Saudi money and Western promotional know-how. Incredibly women, who domestically must cover themselves head to toe in black and walk several paces behind their men in public, are now allowed to watch certain sporting events and even play certain sports such as badminton and basketball although not in public.

Yet when I visited the King Fahd Stadium in the capital Riyadh, there were not even toilet facilities for any women who accompanied sporting dignitaries from overseas, such as FIFA officials. 

The rematch between Britain's former world champion Anthony Joshua and the man who beat him, Mexico's Andy Ruiz Jnr, has been controversially scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia ©Matchroom Boxing
The rematch between Britain's former world champion Anthony Joshua and the man who beat him, Mexico's Andy Ruiz Jnr, has been controversially scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia ©Matchroom Boxing

True, women can even drive now, although they have to be accompanied by a man, and I’m not sure whether or not a ban, which was in force while I was there on at least three occasions whereby women were not allowed to eat in male company and had a separate room of their own, in restaurants, is still applicable.

Maybe it won't be when the next major boxing event, a world heavyweight title fight between the deposed British champion Anthony Joshua and his shock Mexican-American conqueror Andy Ruiz Jnr is staged on December 7 in a new 15,000-seater arena being built just outside Riyadh. It is an astonishing coup for the Saudis but one which understandably has received a more negative than positive reaction worldwide.

Former Olympic champion Joshua, although now merely the challenger, is said to be receiving some $50 million (£41 million/€45 million) for the rematch with new champion, the tubby Ruiz, who sensationally stopped him in seven rounds in New York City in June. The Saudis, Sky, American TV and international sponsorship are footing the bill under the promotional stewardship of British Matchroom, boss "Fast" Eddie Hearn.

These shifting sands in Saudi Arabia have come about, as change did in South Africa, through international pressure and sanctions. And sanctions especially through sport. It was former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge who initiated this, twice issuing yellow cards about their refusal to allow sporting competition by women and then threatening a red card from the London Olympics in 2012 if they did not mend their anachronistic ways. Female IOC member Anita DeFrantz was among those who had called for Saudi Arabia to be barred.

The Saudis subsequently panicked and chose two token girls to compete in judo and athletics in those Games. Things have further improved since, with four female competitors at Rio 2016, though not quite to the extent of burqas being exchanged for bikinis in beach volleyball. Nor were females then allowed to take part in sport or undertake physical exercise in school back home.

The Saudi breakthrough has all come about by Royal prerogative, despite angry opposition from the mullahs who usually dictate things in Islamic countries such as Saudi. This time they have been overruled because, again like South Africa, the nation wants a foothold of respectability internationally.

I am told that at the two fights held in Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City, women were not only allowed to watch (though not box of course) but did not have to cover themselves completely or even wear headscarves. The few Saudi women in the crowd did so, however.

The announcement of the December fight was certainly the most jaw dropping since an unknown ex-con named Don King called a press conference in Caracas in Venezuela in 1974, when then champion George Foreman had knocked out Ken Norton to tell us that Foreman’s next fight would be against Muhammad Ali in Zaire, an African nation formerly known as the Congo, and it will be labelled the "Rumble in the Jungle". It turned out to be the most famous slice of history in the annals of boxing.

Now, fast forward 38 years and we have the "Dust up in the Desert". At least they hope so for, despite signing for the rematch, Ruiz is said to be deeply unhappy about the venue and wants it held in the United States. No doubt the debate will continue.

Hearn argues: "If you look at the bigger picture, this is a chance not just for boxing but for AJ. I knew that when we made the decision not every response would be positive and that there would be criticism and controversy. But I’m a promoter and sometimes the criticism and controversy and curiosity will lead to an event of extraordinary magnitude. I don’t think AJ thinks it is a risk to his reputation.

"You can talk about events in the past with the 'Rumble in the Jungle' and the 'Thrilla in Manila' - and I put this in the same kind of league."

The fight in Saudi Arabia could be as big as
The fight in Saudi Arabia could be as big as "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, promoter Eddie Hearn has claimed ©Getty Images

Really? Steady Eddie..Let’s remember that Joshua is not Muhammad Ali and Ruiz is by no means George Foreman or Joe Frazier. Having said that, it is indeed a bizarre happening. If indeed it happens.

Three belts will be at stake for this reprise and the promotional arm of the Saudi set-up is fronted by a businessman named Omar Khalil, who informs us that 70 per cent of the 40 million population are under 25 and want change.

The new stadium will be built in Diryah, a 15th century UNESCO site outside the capital to which he says "we hope to welcome as many British and American fans as possible. All will be given visas when they apply for tickets. We are serious about boxing as one means of improving the quality of life of people as well as improving their well-being through exercise".

But one law which hasn’t changed is the ban on alcohol (it will be the same in Qatar for the 2022 football World Cup). Boxing fans like a tipple or two to sip while singing along to the sport's new anthem Sweet Caroline, but trying to smuggle even a can of Heineken into the arena could mean a sentence of 500 lashes.

Visiting Saudi Arabia even today is like stepping back into medieval times with public executions by beheading with a huge sword, whippings, stoning to death for adultery and continuing by and large, sexual discrimination against women.

So what can sport and in particular the noble art bring about?

The sport of change in attitude and culture which happened under Mandela in South Africa?

Many might bet against it.

But then betting isn’t allowed there either.