In the painstaking absence of sport during the coronavirus, why not learn about a new one? Camel racing is probably one of the most lucrative yet unheard of sports in the world. With Saudis having more money than sense, they pour millions of Riyals into their national sport transforming it into a scintillating spectacle.
My experience of camel racing was not quite as Gatsby-esque, but no less enjoyable. When on my year abroad in Egypt, by complete coincidence I stumbled across your Sunday League equivalent of a camel race. Whilst ambling along an extensive and arid plain in the Sinai peninsula I suddenly heard a commotion and a plume of dust erupt into the air. Intrigued, I went over to check out what was occurring to see 12 massive camels hurtling at 40 mph, limbs flailing everywhere. I watched the spectacle unfold before me as the camels embarked upon a gruelling 8 km lap whilst the jockeys hung on for dear life.
A race within a race
One of the strange quirks of this sport is that there is a race within a race. Whilst the camels are battling for supremacy, so are the trainers. The trainers are in hot pursuit of the herd of camels in their 4x4s, getting as close to the pack as humanly possible in order to yell encouragement to their beloved camel. Among these cars is that of the commentator who is hurtling alongside the herd of camels. Now if you have ever watched an illegal football stream with Arabic commentary, then you’ll know that they get excited by the smallest thing and celebrate a corner as if it were a goal. As you can imagine, in such a high octane environment the commentator’s excitement reaches a fever pitch; flurries of Allahu Akbar resonate on the tannoy and the local radio as the camels near the dusty finish line.
This chance encounter captivated me and inspired me to learn more about a sport I had never given a second thought to. It turns out that camel racing is one of the most lucrative sports in the world. With some racing camels reaching fees of £30 million, in today’s money that would buy you, ummm, Granit Xhaka… Regardless, with high transfer fees comes high reward. For comparison, arguably the UK’s most prestigious horse racing festival is the Royal Ascot with prize money totalling a measly £14 million when compared to the UAE’s Al Marmoum festival which dishes out a whopping £40 million prize money.
Away from all the glitz and the glam, there is a darker side to the sport. Due to the high rewards at stake, every measure is taken to gain the upper hand, no matter what the cost. child jockeys are used due to their lighter frames. Due to the dangerous nature of the sport, serious injuries are not uncommon and children are often left maimed. It has been reported that thousands of children (some reported as young as 2 years old) are trafficked from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan for use as jockeys for camel racing industry in Arab States of the Persian Gulf. Some reports estimate that at one point up to 40,000 child camel jockeys in the Persian Gulf. Thankfully, a ban was imposed on child jockeys in 2002.
Teach the West a trick or two?
Camel racing has modernised drastically, fusing tradition with technology to perfection. In the last half century there has been no recorded increase in the speed of European racehorses, whereas thanks to scientific breeding and state of the art training, the speed of racing camels has increased by 30% in the past 50 years. What’s more, there are lessons that the West can learn from the Arabs. In today’s camel races technology is, quite literally, in the driving seat and jockeys have been replaced by robots weighing no more than a laptop. They have an electronic whip attached which can be activated remotely by the trainer who is driving alongside in a 4×4 and is equipped with a microphone so he can shout words of encouragement to the camel, like a remote cox.
This age old sport is both thrilling and bonkers in equal measure. You may never see this sport on Sky Sports Main Event but seeing as we have an indefinite absence from mainstream sport, I implore you to at least watch one of these crazy spectacles, you won’t regret it.