|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (432)
Egypt's participation in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam was carefully followed by the public as the country attempted to do better than in the previous two tournaments. In football, the sport Egyptians crave most, the team defeated Portugal but was later bludgeoned by Argentina and Italy. The thrashings forced the people to turn their attention to weightlifting, a sport Egypt counted on for medals; mixed results were achieved. Far from the medal tally, Al-Ahram's position was that merely entering the world's biggest sports spectacle had given Egypt priceless international standing. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines the search for victory and respect
The first International Olympics Committee was established in 1894. Two years later, the first modern Olympic Games were held, in Athens with 13 nations competing in 10 events. The Olympics were held every four years thereafter until World War I: in Paris in 1900, St Louis in 1904, London in 1908, and Stockholm in 1912. Following the war, the Olympics were held in Antwerp in 1920 and again in Paris in 1924. These latest Olympics were the first to attract the attention of the Egyptian people because it was the first in which there was an effective Egyptian presence. This could not be said of the Antwerp Olympics. Even though Egyptians were there, as Al-Ahram put it: "The Egyptian delegation went and returned without us having learned anything that would give us cause to either reproach or praise anyone."
For this reason, in the run-up to the Paris Olympics, Al- Ahram was keen to drum up support. It reminded Egyptians of the status sports had in ancient Egyptian civilisation and it stressed the importance of Egypt's presence in an international event in which 35 nations were participating, "foremost among which are the US, Britain, France, Australia, Italy and Japan." For the same reason, in 1928 Al-Ahram appealed for an even more effective Egyptian presence in the Olympics that were to be held that year in Amsterdam. Sadly, not all hopes can be realised, as the saying has it.
Even before it started, the Amsterdam Olympics had a smaller turnout than Antwerp. Many countries had withdrawn, notably Britain, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland and Sweden because of disputes that arose over the distinction between professional and amateur competitors and over the travel allowances for the competitors. With regard to the latter, Al-Ahram reported that one body of opinion believed that competitors should be awarded an allowance equal to the salaries they will be foregoing while on leave from their jobs, while the opposing camp felt that they should be obliged to sacrifice in the pursuit of their sport. The Al-Ahram sports columnist feared that "if some solution is not found to the current problem, the number of countries competing may not exceed the fingers of one hand."
As was the case in the 1924 Olympics, in the summer of 1928 the attention of the Egyptian public was riveted on football, even if the performance of the Egyptian team was to disappoint them -- as usual. When Egypt beat Portugal in the eliminations, it was the only victory of the Egyptian team that year.
Of course, Al-Ahram's enthusiasm for this encounter matched that of the general public and it covered it in great detail, starting with the appearance of the teams on the field, to which "the approximately 17,000 spectators applauded." From the account of Al-Ahram's special correspondent in Amsterdam, it is possible to observe how different the style of sports reporting was in the early days of this field of journalism:
"After 20 minutes of excellent playing on the part of the Egyptians, El-Sayed Houda took a powerful shot at the Portuguese goal but missed. Then Ali Riad took the ball but his shot, sadly, also failed to hit its mark, although the shot was superb. This was 25 minutes into the game, and for the next five minutes the match remained scoreless. Suddenly, El-Suri deftly passed the ball to Mohamed Houda who advanced in tandem with El-Sayed Houda, who then passed to Mahmoud Mukhtar, who kicked a low shot that sped past the Portuguese goalkeeper. The first goal was struck 33 minutes into the game and the first half ended 1--0 in Egypt's favour."
In the second half, Egypt resumed its offensive though playing against the wind, "and after five minutes Houda got hold of the ball, passed it to his brother Mahmoud. Mahmoud left the ball to Mukhtar who struck the second goal. The match continued without change until 38 minutes into the second half when Mukhtar took a fantastic shot for the third goal. However, the referee whistled, calling for a foul, thus cancelling the goal. Ten minutes later, the Portuguese team scored their first and only goal."
Before signing off, the correspondent gave his analysis of the match. The Italian referee was a washout; the Portuguese team, although strong, was defeated by a stronger team.
As usual with such sole victories, the Egyptian press let this one go to its head, adding to its own extensive coverage any opinions that appeared in the European press. Perhaps the most flattering was that which appeared in Le Petit Journal, which wrote that the match was a worthy contest "between two teams of the highest technical skill." It continues, "The Egyptians were the fleetest and the more deft. Their playing was admirable."
Jubilation quickly subsided following the match against Argentina two days later. Al-Ahram's report was also much shorter in view of the Egyptian team's resounding 5-0 defeat. "The Egyptians displayed excellent teamwork, but without results," mourned the Al-Ahram correspondent, adding, "Egypt exhibited a fine sporting spirit and gave its all to win." He went on to hope that the national team would be more successful in the next match, which was to be against Italy. And in a bid to raise public morale, Al-Ahram published commentaries from the European sporting news to the effect that the Egyptian defeat against Argentina was purely a matter of bad luck, which would not repeat itself in the following match. For example, it quoted the following assessment from a Dutch newspaper:
"The Egyptians use precision strategy in gaining the advantage over their opponents and they are far more skilful at playing the ball than the Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians. In short, they possess all the ingredients for victory: speed, ability and perspicacity."
From a French newspaper, Al-Ahram quoted: "The Egyptian team is trained in the British manner and, thus, excels in agility and manoeuvrability. As a result, it has become in the eyes of the world a formidable adversary."
Whatever hopes were raised with these commentaries, they were quickly dashed after the match against the Italians. Indeed, this match proved one of the early disasters for Egyptian football. Already by the end of the first half, the score was Italy 6, Egypt 2 and the match ended 11 to 3. Al-Ahram's correspondent in Holland sought to attribute the defeat to rain, an excuse used frequently by sports reporters ever since. But he also had to admit that the Egyptian defence had been weak, "especially Shamis, Hussan and El-Suri who could not defend properly, which accounted for this devastating defeat." Evidently, so poor was Egypt's performance that day that even when the weather improved in the second half, "the Italian offence barely encountered a single Egyptian to block its path."
These matches were not the only football stories in the 1928 Olympics. It so happened that the Egyptian Olympic Committee sent referee Youssef Mohamed Effendi to take part in the tournament. To his misfortune, he had to referee the match between Germany and Uruguay, a match filled with tension. Worse, the German team, according to Al-Ahram, consisted of players noted not only for their huge bodies but also for "their expertise at causing injury."
Because of the violence in the match, the Egyptian referee, in front of 30,000 mostly German spectators, threw out the core of the German defence during the first half and, in the second, also sent off a member of each side. His decisions won him little popularity. Perhaps the mildest criticism was that of the secretary-general of the International Football Federation who said that, in spite of his admiration for Mohamed, "he made a mistake this time by taking out the heart of the defence of an important team like that. His lack of knowledge of the languages spoken by the competing players complicated his task."
Al-Ahram then turned to the sports in which Egyptians would have a greater showing. Weightlifting was one, and on 19 June 1928, Joheina, the Al-Ahram sports editor, devoted an article to "(Sayed) Nuseir and Mukhtar (Hussein): Egypt's hopes."
Joheina reproached sporting officials for delaying the departure of these two athletes to Amsterdam "where there is plenty of muscle- building food and where the specifications of the weights are such that they leave no room for doubt. However, this did not occur and the two athletes, in spite of their urgent pleas to be allowed to depart as soon as possible, were forced to remain in this scorching, debilitating, energy-draining heat."
Although officials responded that there was no reason to be concerned about Nuseir and Mukhtar in view of their record scores, Joheina cautioned that such boastful numbers meant nothing to the experts. The name of the game in weightlifting was not the weights but how to lift them. "How frequently has this factor defeated breathtaking records?" Joheina wrote.
The Egyptian weightlifting champions would be competing in the light heavyweight category. Joheina warned they would be up against stiff competition from the French team.
Egyptians waited with bated breath to see how their athletes would perform. Here they were not disappointed. On 31 July Al-Ahram published on its front page a picture of Nuseir along with the headline announcing that he had just become the world's light heavyweight weightlifting champion after lifting 355.5kg.
Al-Ahram featured a human interest story about weightlifter Mukhtar Hussein, an athlete who later acquired considerable fame. This appeared in the form of a letter to the newspaper in which Hussein expressed his gratitude to his trainer, Bassiouni, who "took me under his wing until I became an international champion." Hussein recalls sitting with his mentor who "effused knowledge as vast as a swelling sea. I discovered that he knew all there was to know about the rules and regulations of the game. I wish that every athlete could receive instruction at the hands of this brilliant teacher, the likes of whom can rarely be found in Egypt."
Hussein's letter was not as innocent as it sounded. When results of the wrestling events turned out less than Egyptians had hoped for, many put the blame on Bianci, a reaction that was epitomised by a letter to the newspaper by a reader called Abdel-Moneim Fahmi. Fahmi charged that Bianci "has demonstrated that he is of little value to Egyptian wrestlers, as the Egyptian champion Ibrahim Kamel himself testifies. Everyone knows that this trainer knows nothing about the art of lifting weights. How great it would be if Mahmoud Bassiouni Effendi would step forward to convey his knowledge and expertise, because it is to him that Nuseir owes his victory."
It is not difficult to imagine that this letter came at the prompting of Mukhtar Hussein. Nor that Al-Ahram suspected this as well, for it was quick to remind him of the fact that not only did he place seventh in the middleweight category but that his scores were less than his records in Egypt. The newspaper asked the Egyptian athlete to explain this performance, but no response was forthcoming.
Following the celebrations in honour of the Egyptian athletes upon their return to Egypt -- celebrations that were as tepid as the performance of the athletes in Amsterdam -- Al-Ahram began its assessment of the Olympics, after which attention quickly turned to the domestic sporting scene.
On 7 September 1928, Al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat wrote the front-page lead entitled, "Remembering the Olympic Games: Will they restore European civilisation?" However, before getting into the political aspects of the international event, Barakat discussed what Egypt gained by participating in the Games. Just by being in Amsterdam, he wrote, "Egypt's young athletes made the country proud. Darkened by politics, its face brightened with jubilant smiles at the news of our athletes skill and excellence." The Egyptian people had every reason to feel proud. Sporting competitions, such as the Olympics, were a true test of individual mettle, "for they not only demand physical strength but also strength of the imagination, power of memory, high concentration, fast thinking, perspicacity and good judgement, along with patience and perseverance."
Barakat then turned to the history of the divisions that beset European nations. He described the history of feudal wars between nations, which ultimately gave rise to several distinct and mutually hostile cultures. Thus, "the British became a world of their own and the Germans evolved a creed which was in conflict with that of the French and Italians. Because of these severe ruptures and entrenched animosities, they harboured intense and lasting hatred for one another's customs, traditions and ways of life."
The Europeans devised a solution intended to restore harmony to the European family after centuries of fragmentation. The Olympic Games, inspired by the heritage of ancient civilisation, "brought together the diverse elements of the Hellenic peoples, stirred the spirit of brotherhood in their souls and lifted their aspirations. When they intermingled in the Games, their literary traditions fused and their customs became one."
The revival of the Olympics, Barakat concludes, had a similar effect. They generated a modern spirit of fraternity founded on the belief that all men are brothers whose parents are Adam and Eve. This spirit made it possible to transform the Games from a European to a truly international event that brought together peoples of all nations, "indeed all of humanity." Egypt had been part of that international event and it made its mark, he said.
The 1928 Olympics inspired a move to create an African Olympics, a cause Egypt was eager to promote. Under the headline, "Olympic Games in Alexandria," the Al-Ahram correspondent in Paris notified Egyptians that the Olympics committee meeting in the French capital had signalled its approval for an African athletic championship to be held in the famous Egyptian port city. However, there was a hitch: France, Italy and Belgium would have to agree to allow their African colonies to participate. At first, it appeared that France was reluctant to send teams from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to Alexandria but, as the correspondent writes, "it (France) changed its mind and agreed that delegations from these countries could participate in the afore- mentioned Games."
Al-Ahram welcomed this change of heart. If Egypt, along with only a handful of British colonies, were to take part in the Games, the event would be a failure. It surmised that France had no doubt feared that the Egyptian people would begin to share with the French-ruled peoples the spirit of national liberation.
Evidently, France's change of heart was complete, because the Olympics committee launched a campaign to promote the Games among the French public, along with the added prospect of an opportunity to visit Egypt's famous antiquities. Al-Ahram reports that the committee succeeded in persuading British and Italian shipping firms to offer up to 50 per cent discounts on trips to Alexandria "and advertisements have proliferated throughout Paris enticing people to attend the Games."
For its part, Al-Ahram launched an appeal for a drive to raise the enormous funds necessary for hosting such an event. No effort should be spared towards this end, it urged, because the Games will be evidence of the Egyptian people's administrative abilities, dedication to sports and unity of spirit. It will also testify to Egypt's status on the African continent.
As important as this development was, it did not divert Egyptians' attention from the next Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles four years later. Egyptian athletes and sporting officials knew, in light of events in Amsterdam, that they had better prepare early for 1932.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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