HBO: ‘Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel: The Sport of Sheikhs’

Jan 16, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Debra Kaufman

Special to TelevisionWeek

Child slavery is an unlikely focus for a sports program, but as correspondent Bernard Goldberg likes to point out, “Real Sports” isn’t a sports program in the traditional sense. “The program explores important issues in America, whether [they’re] race, gender or class, as it’s seen through the prism of sports,” he said.

So when producer Joe Perskie brought Mr. Goldberg a 14-minute tape showing the abuse and torture of young boys in secret “camel jockey training” camps in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Goldberg knew he had an important story. “It was stronger than anything I’d ever worked on, and I’ve been a working journalist for almost 38 years,” he said.

That young Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys are kidnapped and trained as jockeys in the UAE-where camel racing is a national sport-isn’t news. What piqued Mr. Perskie’s interest was reading in fall 2002 that the UAE had restated its commitment to an already existing but ineffectual ban on the use of children under the age of 15 as camel jockeys.

To follow the story of whether the ban would be upheld, he contacted British photojournalist David Higgs, who was willing to track down the camps in the UAE and film with a hidden camera. Joining him were Ansar Burney, a charismatic Pakistani human rights crusader who became the main protagonist of the story, and Mr. Burney’s wife and translator, Shaheen.

The hidden digital video camera was custom-designed by streeTVision Remote in Manhattan, a company that provides hidden cameras for law-enforcement organizations and network news programs. While Mr. Riggs and the Burneys canvassed the country visiting secret camps, Mr. Perskie stayed in constant cellphone contact from New York.

From the resulting “dozens of tapes,” Mr. Perskie first created the highlight reel that convinced Mr. Goldberg of the story’s importance. Mr. Perskie then faced the task of creating a story that would challenge viewers to enter a different world and come face to face with the reality that slavery still exists.

A further challenge, Mr. Perskie noted, was that in much of the footage the dialogue was in multiple dialects of Urdu and Arabic.

When Mr. Burney planned to return to the secret camps and rescue some of the boys, the “Real Sports” team sprang into action. “We had asked him to take a camera if he did go back and do a rescue,” said Mr. Perskie, who noted that the multitalented Mr. Burney is a trained cameraman. His footage-showing the rescue of a few kidnapped boys-provided a natural ending to the half-hour program. In the program, Mr. Burney also highlighted the dangers inherent in uncovering slavery, reporting on ongoing threats to his life and attacks on his home and office.

“The Sport of Sheikhs” is the first sports program to be recognized by a duPont Award. “This story made headlines all over the world,” Mr. Goldberg said, “and we broke it worldwide.”

Mr. Perskie found encouragement in the response to the story by the UAE, which invited Mr. Burney to open a shelter for repatriated boys. Mr. Burney, who continues to repatriate kidnapped boys, has since been honored by the U.S. State Department.