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Middle East Adventure – a reflection by Chris Rowe

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Around January 2001 I was working in the North West of England and decided to do something a little ‘different’ after 21 years teaching in State Secondary Schools. I spotted a job as Head of PE at the British School, Riyadh (now called the British International School Riyadh). The advert specifically asked for a specialism in Swimming – which was right up my street.

I sent in my application, not for one minute thinking it would come to fruition – normally people like me just didn’t get breaks like that! However within a week I received an email asking me to interview in London, the following week. I met with the Principal, Patrick Bloomfield, had an interview and made a presentation. A week later, I received the email which was to change my life completely. Mr Bloomfield offered me the post on an initial 2 year contract, with additional responsibility for coaching the British School Barracudas swim team.

My first year in the school was very busy (in fact this was an omen for the following 14 years!). I absolutely loved working there – the parents, children and staff were all great and coaching the swim team, for me, was like Manna from Heaven!

BSME Games

Around October 2002, a member of my department, Lucy Ryder, approached me with a request. She had received an email about a new competition which was going to be held at St Christophers School, Bahrain. The Head of PE at St Christophers, Alistair Bond, planned to have a 2 day competition with 5 sports which would involve schools who were members of the British Schools of the Middle East organisation. I explained to Lucy that this would be a great opportunity for the children at BSR as competitive opportunities were quite limited within Riyadh. I offered to let her lead the tour and organise the logistics for the team.

I don’t actually remember too much about the first one, other than it was a lot more compact and simple, but that the level of enjoyment from all concerned was extremely high. I do remember being surprised that the level of competition was a lot higher than I had expected. Being isolated in Riyadh it was difficult to get a picture of how we rated as a school. These first Games came as a bit of a shock, as I don’t think we won any of the tournaments. Even swimming, where I thought we would dominate, we came 3rd. This experience gave us a great target to set for ourselves and became the benchmark for all schools across the Middle East. The legend and folklore of the BSME Games was born!

The following year was again held in Bahrain. The number of schools increased from 4 at the first games to 7 in the second. Equally exciting and equally challenging.

However, Alistair Bond’s vision was that, like the Olympics, the Games would be held in different schools in different countries. For 2005 other schools were asked to volunteer to take up the proverbial torch and host the Games in a different country. By this time I had moved job to the British International School Cairo – a much smaller school with 2 form entry. I eagerly awaited the news to find out where I could take my first Egypt based team to experience this great event. However, nobody stepped forward and the Games never took place that year.

Alistair once again stepped forward and offered to host his 3rd Games at St Christophers in 2006. However, the clear message was that someone else was expected to take the baton the following year. Part of an experience like this has to be sharing the responsibility and the load. Once again my team were overawed by the standard of performance from other schools and struggled valiantly to do their best. Comparatively, as a 2 form entry school competing against some bigger giants we did very well and came 6th out of 12 schools. At the end of the 2006 Games the venue for the first non-Bahrain Games was announced – DESS Dubai were to host the 2007 Games.

In 2007 I took a stronger team to the DESS Dubai Games. Despite being a smaller school, we won our first BSME trophy – a 3rd place in the swimming beating much bigger schools including DESS Dubai! This was my first big personal success at the Games. An interesting twist for me at these Games was that, in the meantime I had been appointed as the next Head of PE at DESS Dubai, due to take position the following September. I was determined to higher my aspirations and go for my first number one position the following year.

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Our first BSME Trophy 2007                        Basketball 2008                                  Dubai English Speaking School Parents

That year it was decided that the Games should run for 3 days instead of 2 in order for children to be able to recover in between each sport and for them to relax a little more.

In 2008 the Games moved to Doha and were a joint collaboration between Al Khor, DESS Doha, Doha College and Park House. This was probably my favourite Games as it was the first time I had taken a team from DESS Dubai. The Games were based at Al Khor which was a 40 minute drive from the hotel, but gave us time to mentally prepare on the way there and reflect (and sleep!) on the way back. This was the first time I had taken a team from one of the ‘big guns’ – DESS Dubai and I had high expectations of the team of 26 children who went with me and my team of 4 staff. In particular I had coached the swimming team, the athletics team and the basketball team myself and so my reputation was at stake! First up was the swimming. I had coached the DESS team throughout that year and they had made great progress. Again, I did not know what our standards were like compared to other schools outside Dubai. It was an exciting meet with some outstanding performances. At the end of the meet, the scores were announced and we were pleased to hear we had gained 2nd place and a silver trophy to start off our campaign. However, this was not to be – overnight the scores were recounted by the organiser and it was found that one of our relay scores was wrong – we had been given 14 points instead of 24. This meant that we had actually gained the first place position and our first Gold Trophy at the BSME Games.

The rest of the 2008 Games went equally well for us. The following day, in football we gained a 3rd place and in netball another 1st place. 2 more trophies for the cabinet. On the final day Athletics was completed in the morning. DESS had an excellent time, including BSME records in 60m sprint and High Jump. Overall we again managed to gain first place. Total so far, 3 golds and 1 bronze. But what about the overall trophy? This was the big one for me. To achieve this, would be the ultimate reward.

The last tournament was the basketball. We had calculated that, in order to win overall, we had to get at least 7th place. This might seem a fairly easy task, but at that time basketball was not played in Dubai and many of the other BSME schools played this competitively throughout the year. As coach of our basketball team, the pressure was on.

We eventually ended up playing Park House for the 7th/8th place playoff. We HAD to win in order to get the overall trophy. Well I’m happy to say that we did it, and the Games ended well for us as overall winners for the first time. Returning to Dubai was a great experience, with parents and children waiting at the airport with banners and streamers and lots of smiles.

(A little known fact from that year is that I had made a pact with myself before I travelled to Doha that year – if we won the overall trophy, I would always wear something red to work every day until I left the school. I have kept to this promise and still wear at least some red, somewhere in my uniform every day).

In 2009 the Games moved back to Dubai and were hosted by JESS Ranches. JESS Jumeirah, their sister school also took part for the first time and this became ‘their’ Games. I say this because, for the first and only time ever they won all 5 of the individual tournaments. They had a squad of highly skilled all-rounders who dominated proceedings throughout. This set the bar for future Games to come.

In 2010 we had, probably, the most memorable games so far – the one that everyone still talks about. Modern English School Cairo hosted and participated for the first time ever, and didn’t they do things in style. The 2 things which stick out from that Games were the trip to the Pyramids, plus the hotel – the brand new Dusit Thani – it was awesome. Ed Price was the Head of PE there who was also noted as starting a new trend. His wife had a baby just prior to the Games. Since then, this has happened 2 more times with organisers of the Games – so be warned!

For 2011, the Games returned to Doha again, and Al Khor bravely volunteered to host once more. Another smoothly run machine throughout. The key thing which was introduced at those Games was a focus on international culture and history. There were many displays of dance, theatre and music throughout the event to keep the athletes entertained.

2012 saw a new approach. The Games took place in Dubai again, but this time they were hosted by a company called the Onion Bag (slang term for goal nets apparently). It went back to a very simple approach with less ‘bling’ but enjoyable nonetheless. However, it was decided that for the following year, the Games should return into the hands of another school and everyone wondered who that might be.

The biggest news for me in the 2013 Games was that my Headteacher, Dave Hammond had ‘kindly’ volunteered for us to host again. (Headteachers seem to have a habit of doing this!). I have to say it was an enormous challenge for us to project manage such a large event and I saw for the first time what it is like from the other side of the fence. It was an extremely challenging year, but we formed a team of staff and parents who worked extremely well together to produce an event which we were all proud of. The cream on the cake was that we also won the overall trophy.

In 2014, similar to the MES Games, Brighton College Abu Dhabi volunteered to put themselves on the map with their first ever experience of the Games – both competing and organising. Thrown into the challenge was the fact that the Head of PE, Simon Crane had only started the job in September and was on a very steep learning curve. He came to us for a morning’s consultation and to get up to speed with this behemoth which is the BSME Games. Needless to say Simon, and Brighton College did an awesome job which resulted in another memorable event. If I had to say one word which epitomised those Games, it would be ‘posh!’ Oh yes, and yet another baby, Simon’s wife gave birth just before the Games (BSME baby number 2).

So we come to 2015 and what is to be my final Games as I will leave DESS and the Middle East in June this year to return back to the UK. I handed the reins over to my department to lead the DESS team this year as part of the succession process. Although not part of the official DESS touring party, I flew across on Friday to oversee the DESS swim team in their efforts to win the BSME swimming trophy. (This also ensured my claim to have attended all Games so far would be ensured!). I was extremely happy to see that my final involvement in the Games was rewarded with a first place in the swimming - although we were chased very hard by a strong team from St Christophers. Steve Wilkinson from DESS Doha and his team of dedicated staff ran another awesome Games which was well run and will be another Games to remember due to them taking place in the magnificent Aspire Dome complex. The other ‘event’ of the Games was the birth of Steve’s first child – baby Noah. BSME baby number 3!

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                                                             First place Trophy in Swimming U11 Games, Qatar 2015

BSME Swimming


In 2009, Dave Rogers, based at the British School Muscat introduced the first ever BSME Swimming Championships. This is not a team event as such, but provides an opportunity for individual swimmers to excel and shine as well as win their own individual medals and ribbons. It was open to swimmers aged from 9 to 18 years old. In 2009 we took a team of 14 swimmers from years 5 and 6 and had a great experience at this event. Since 2009 we have taken an ever increasing number of children to this excellent, well run swim meet. We now also take children from our High School, DESC as well as children from years 2, 3 and 4.

The Championships have developed since the first one in 2009. There is now an under 8 category for younger swimmers to gain their first experience of ‘big swimming’ in a ‘big pool’. It is heartwarming to see children from 7 to 18 years old swimming together, sometimes in the same races and enabling the younger swimmers to see high quality swimming from the older pupils – giving them something to aspire to. Due to the high quality of the event, qualification times have now been introduced to ensure that this is maintained. High points trophies are also now given to the fastest overall swimmers in each category.

The ‘feel’ of the event is a mix of high drama and excitement mixed with a great family atmosphere. Dave Rogers has reliably provided an invaluable experience for all swimmers who attend every year.

Heads of PE Conference

One of the challenges which became evident through the early years of the Games was that, as it grew larger and larger, maintaining a consistently high quality and valuable experience became more difficult. The key elements of any quality tournament are good facilities, fair rules and refereeing, clear and realistic guidelines and balanced competition. Above all, consistency and continuity were the key factors in ensuring success.

The 5 sports which Alistair Bond introduced were football for boys, netball for girls and swimming, athletics and basketball for both. In 2007 the hosts suggested dropping basketball and including rugby and in 2008 the hosts suggested dropping basketball and including rounders. Both of these suggestions potentially would have created a number of practical problems and challenges. After numerous emails between myself and the organisers, these ideas were dropped in favour of the original 5 sports. Common sense prevailed. In addition, each year, rules, game times, scoring and other elements varied according to what resources were available and how the organiser wanted to run the event.

In September 2008, I emailed John Alcott, the Chair of the events Committee to request that a conference should be held for all Heads of PE in BSME schools. This would provide an opportunity for discussion and dialogue about how the Games were developing as well as trying to create a standardised handbook with clear guidelines and advice for future organisers of the Games. This would guarantee consistency throughout the Games as well as a fair and well balanced approach.

John was very positive about the idea and could see the need for this in order to ensure that the Games continued to grow and succeed. In April that year the first BSME Heads of PE conference was held in the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, Dubai attended by around 100 delegates from across the region.

There was lots of healthy and vibrant discussion and as a result, the first proper official handbook was produced. This has been reviewed each year and since then has provided an invaluable tool to organisers and team coaches alike.

The conference has developed and changed in a number of ways since 2008. In 2010 it was lengthened to 2 days which included a number of valuable training events with high quality presenters from the UK flying in to lead.

In 2011 it was decided that a smaller steering committee would be formed that would meet each year. This primarily involved the Heads of PE who had either attended most or all Games or had organised the Games themselves. This team of around 12 people meet every year with the Chair of the events committee and review the events which have taken place that year, decide on a calendar for the following year and revise the BSME ‘Bible’ – the handbook.

This is an invaluable event which ensures that BSME sport is constantly being extended and improved.

As the size and range of events continued to grow it became obvious that there was a need for additional help outside school PE Departments. In the BSME Heads of PE conference which took place at JESS Ranches, Dubai, Mark Holness - Head of PE at St Christopher’s Bahrain presented a proposal to the conference. This proposal was that BSME should appoint an individual as an Events Organiser.

The vision was that this person would then assist by overseeing and advising Games organisers who were taking responsibility for BSME sporting events. In this way, there would be one person who would be familiar with all of the logistics and potential challenges which arise each time. The current incumbent, Kate Sutton has been in situ for 2 years and provided invaluable support and assistance at a number of events and has enabled both further expansion and enhancement of the BSME Events to the benefit of even more students across the region.

The current situation has a wide variety of activities including netball, football, cricket, basketball, athletics, swimming and triathlon. In addition, music, performing arts and debating also hold major events through the year. All ages are catered for from age 7 through to age 18 and events are held throughout the Middle Eastern region. BSME provides a truly awesome range of opportunities for children to experience.

… and finally

At the point of writing, I am 5 days away from attending my final BSME Swimming Championships, 2 months away from attending my final BSME steering committee meeting and 3 months away from returning back to the UK for good.

BSME Games and Swimming will be one of the things which epitomises what school sport in the Middle East is about at its highest level. Having seen it grow from it’s infancy in 2003 to what it has become now has been a great experience and one I am proud of being part of.

I have had a very enjoyable, valuable and rewarding experience in my 14 years in the Middle East. I have been privileged to work alongside so many great teachers and parents. However, above all, the enthusiasm, determination and ultimately the smiles on the faces of the children will be what I remember and value most. These will stay with me for a very long time.

Chris Rowe
Director of Sport 2007 - 2015
DESS Dubai
Head of Primary PE 2004 - 2007
BISC Cairo
Head of PE 2001 - 2004
BISR Saudi Arabia

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