Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 September 2004
Issue No. 707
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

The Athens Olympics brought back memories of another Olympiad altogether, the 1948 Olympic Games in London -- the first to take place after World War II. London was selected in honour of the Londoners' heroism during the war years. I was a cultural attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in London at the time, and I was somewhat surprised to be summoned unexpectedly to Egypt.

There I was asked to meet Mohamed Taher Pasha, a member of the royal family and president of the Egyptian Olympic Committee, who told me I was to be Olympic attaché for the duration of the Games. I don't know if this is still standard procedure, but during the London Games each participating country appointed an attaché to liaise with the organising committee. Prior to and during the event, attachés met among themselves and with committee members.

With a good part of the city still in ruins, the principal problem facing the committee was accommodation. Apart from the Olympic Village, several boarding schools were allocated to delegations. We opted for the school option for a number of reasons, foremost among with was to have control over the sportsmen. The 170 members of the delegation arrived, headed by the secretary-general of the Egyptian committee, El- Demerdash Touni, a well- known athlete at the time. He was accompanied by only two administrators, Murad Fahmi and Aziz Fahmi. The occasion was a delightful encounter between the Egyptian residents of England and their Olympic heroes, something to which the attention paid to the latter abundantly testified.

And Egypt participated in every one of the competitions except for equestrian, which involved transportation problems: swimming, diving, wrestling, boxing, weight-lifting, gymnastics, fencing and rowing. Our high hopes were not all realised, but we had some very good results. In water polo, newly introduced into Egypt, we came second, having been defeated only by Italy, and achieved high rankings in all the other games. I remember watching our football match against Denmark, which earned the Danes the bronze medal. The match had ended 1-1, then, in the extra time, Denmark scored the decisive goal. Newspapers highlighted the match, and all agreed that, short of the actual score, Egypt was the better team.

As usual Egypt won two gold medals in weight- lifting, with Fayyad in the featherweight category and Shams in the lightweight. Hammouda, who earned a silver metal, was our representative in the heavyweight category. Khedr El-Touni, who was a sure gold metal in his category, fell ill prior to the event and, participating against his doctors' orders, came out fourth. Egypt came out fifth in free, and fourth in Roman wrestling.

The Olympic delegation was received with great enthusiasm and treated with remarkable hospitality by the Egyptian community in England, which numbered in the thousands. The Egyptian Ambassador Abdel-Fattah Amr Pasha gave a dinner for them, and the Egyptian Students Association treated them to lunch at the Egyptian Club. It was a delightful season of warmth and carefree talk, governed nonetheless by a strict athletic discipline and a strong commitment to success. To a far greater extent than now, the sense of national belonging was strong among each and every Egyptian, and though this was bound to show in a major sporting event, it never took away from the gentleness and nobility of the participants and their backers.

The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of sports in Egypt. Amr Pasha, I remember, was the country's amateur squash hero, while Mahmoud Abdel-Kerim won the open squash championship for many years on end. His style was so noble he was described as "playing a Nile symphony". Egyptian Channel swimmers were the talk of England, too. Indeed, those were the days.

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