Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
Issue No.545
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The silver lining

A stunning victory at last month's Athletics Youth World Championship brought back memories of hope and desire; re-lighting the flame to a long-awaited dream, Alaa Shahine reports

Amr El-Ghazali receiving his bronze medal
photo: Al-Ahram

It is easy to shrug off sports events and training as trivialities indulged in solely by the privileged and empty-minded; frivolous pastimes with no worth, meaning, or purpose. And indeed in Egypt, for the most part, the case is so; justifiable, one must consider, given that the nation's masses are still struggling for food and shelter. Sports has not yet been acknowledged as a subculture in its own right, and the field as a profession is a far cry away from receiving the respect and concern that it has elsewhere in the world.

"We do not pay much heed to medal-winning sports and we still have much work to do," Essam Abdel-Moneim, the prominent local sports critic once told Al-Ahram Weekly before heading Egypt's delegation to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The delegation returned empty-handed; a trend that turned into the norm for Egyptian athletes. But while the outcome of the Sydney Olympics was not a shocker in terms of outcome, athletes and coaches alike remained dumbfounded at yet another flopped attempt.

Nine months later, however, things may be about to change.

Last month, two Egyptian athletes, Yasser Fathi and Amr El-Ghazali, stood on the crowning podium at the second Athletics Youth World Championship in Hungary. Fathi took the silver medal in the shot put, while El- Ghazali snatched the bronze in the discus.

The achievement, unprecedented in the history of Egypt's Athletics Federation since its 1910 founding, came as a result of relentless efforts by the federation, which appointed the prolific athletics trainer, Nagy Asaad, to supervise over the players' preparations over a year before the competition.

"I said before the championship that we will return with medals," Asaad said. "And the players did not let me down."

The event as a whole ended with the United States topping the medal table with a total of 15 medals -- five gold, seven silver and three bronze medal. African athletics giants Kenya came second with ten medals. The Kenyan tally included four gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Russia secured the third place after garnering nine medals -- three gold, four silver and two bronze medals.

"They did a spectacular job and we are very proud of them," Ashraf Bekir, president of the Egyptian federation said after the victory, pledging to grant both champions his full support.

Bekir added that the federation called to treat Fathi and El-Ghazali on equal footing with the football youth national team that won the bronze medal in the last world championship earlier in July.

"We will demand that both players receive the same financial reward as their peers in the football team," he said.

One immediate result of Bekir's efforts, however, was adding Fathi's name to the project of preparing Olympic champions, recently adopted by the Ministry of Youth.

"Minister of Youth Alieddin Hilal added Fathi's name to the project so that our federation has now four representatives, the other three athletes being El-Ghazali, Amr El-Anani and Ahmed Gabr," he said.

According to the ministry, the project's main objective is to grant the selected athletes adequate training and preparations to garner Olympic medals in 2004 and 2008 Games, to be held in Athens and Beijing respectively.

The two champions deserve much spotlight for bringing out the silver lining in Egypt's not yet discovered sporting subculture.

Egypt's first medal in the championship came through Yasser Fathi in the men's shot put. Fathi, a 17-year old boy who started playing only 11 months before the championship, started the competition with a statement, carrying it through to the final round, where he had six trials to make. Although the Egyptian trailed his competitors in the first five trials, he managed, against all the odds, to rank second with a superb 19.58 metre-throw, to set a new Egyptian, Arab and African record. The gold medal went to Bulgaria's 16-year old Georgi Ivanov, who made an awing 19.73 metre-shot, while Korea's Min-Won Lee took the bronze.

Ivanov put his success down to his mind rather than his muscle: "It was my will power that won the meet," he told the International Amateur Athletics Federation's official web site. "I improved my personal best record by nearly 70 centimetres, but without this I could not have won as my competitors were rather fierce."

Two days later, the second medal came in the men's discus throw by El-Ghazali who snatched his spot on the crowning podium from his second trial in the final round with a 61.06 metre-throw. For Qatar, just one throw clinched victory with Khalid Habash Al- Suwaidi's 62.67-metre shot put; a personal record put him ahead of the pack from the start. Silver medallist Robert Harding of Germany also made his rank with his sole good throw -- 62.04 metres.

It was quite an achievement for both men, but remarkably more so for El-Ghazali; the young star's training went hand in hand with his Thanawiya Amma (general secondary certificate) tests two months before the championship.

"I was positive that El-Ghazali would win a medal," Bekir said, adding that if it were not for the exams, the player would have returned with a gold medal.

The 17-year old chose, in the end, to strike the balance between studies and sports; in his studies too he came close to making it all: he downed 98 per cent on his exams, another stunning success.

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