Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2004
Issue No. 709
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Ali Reda: In the ring

Beating the odds for an Olympic silver

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"I really wanted to win. A gold medal is something else, a gold is gold, and I know how much people wanted it and so did I...what we really wanted was to become of those people whose names go down in the annals of their sport."

As the emcee in the boxing hall at the Athens Olympics called Mohamed Ali Reda for his first fight against Cameroon's Netsing Takam the audience, reminded of the legendary Mohamed Ali Clay, the American who won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics, erupted in spontaneous cheers. Ironically, those same Olympics, in 1960, were the one in which Egyptian boxing had won its first, and only, medal when Abdel- Moneim El-Geindi claimed bronze.

Reda won his first fight, and then the winning streak continued. But that wasn't all. His performance, moves in the ring and aggressive punches continued to remind the audience of Reda's legendary namesake.

Mohamed Ali Reda was born in 1975 in the heart of one of Cairo's oldest popular districts, Haret Al-Megharblin in Al-Gamaleya . It is not a place where practising sports on a serious basis is considered a priority. That, after all, requires membership of a club, and clubs cost money, a great deal of money. Nor do the expenses stop there. Parents have to provide their children with additional sums to help with training, transportation and food. It is hardly surprising, then, that in countless poor neighbourhoods in the city the closest children come to organised sporting activities is playing football in the street.

But not so Reda, already known by his friends as Clay because of his boxing prowess. Reda wanted to take sport seriously, and boxing was his favourite. He started training at Al-Gamaleya at the age of 14. When he started practising the game seriously, his family resolved to provide all the support they could.

"We wanted to raise a champion. Not an Olympian, we were not thinking that far, but a national champion. We thought that lay within our reach," says the boxer's father, Haj Reda. And the family tailored its limited budget accordingly.

Reda's first real break came when he was spotted by Eid Osman, Egypt's veteran boxing coach. Osman was so impressed by the youngster that he immediately recommended his transfer to the Police Sports Federation, one of Egypt's leading sporting bodies and a nursing ground for a great many champions.

At the Police Sports Federation Reda's situation improved. "They allocated a salary and an allowance for his training," his father remembers. "And that saved us a lot of worry about his future."

Reda's perseverance began to pay off when he began winning at national junior events.

It was four years after Reda joined the Police Sports Federation that Diaa El-Azab, head of boxing at the Faculty of Physical Education, spotted him during one of his scouting tours. Azab had Reda affiliated to the national team in 1993, the first rung on an international career. Reda went on to claim several international titles.

In 1995, when Abdel-Aziz Ghoniem became the head coach of the national boxing team, Reda was recruited and began boxing at the most senior level.

Though recent success may alter the situation, boxing has long been one of the poor relatives of the Egyptian sporting world. Neither the Boxing Federation, nor individual clubs, have ever really commanded the kind of budget that it takes to create world champions. Successful boxers need intensive training. They have special dietary requirements. And boxing has never attracted the level of funding of, say, football. As a consequence Egyptian boxers had never succeeded at winning anything other than regional competitions. With the success, though, of Egyptians at the Athens Olympics, the Boxing Federation's status is likely to grow, and with it levels of funding.

In Athens Reda won three consecutive matches . Before the Games he was a veteran of 47 international bouts. He was a gold medallist at the All Africa Games in Abouja, Nigeria in 2003 and at Egypt's international Boxing Championship in 2003, and took the silver medal at the 2001 Mediterranean Games in Tunisia.

In the super-heavyweight (over 91kgs) competition in Athens he beat Netsing Takam Armand Carlos in the 16th round. He then beat Jaksto Jaroslav of Tajakstan. It was at this point a mood of celebration broke out among the Egyptian delegation.

"Securing a place in the semi-final meant the chance of a bronze medal at least," Reda recalls. "And getting through to the final would give me a chance to go for gold. Only days before my teammate Mohamed El-Baz had qualified for the semi-finals but had to withdraw because of an injury to his hand. Then two days later Karam Gaber won the gold medal in the 96kgs category of the Graeco-Roman wrestling. We were all thrilled in Athens. And I knew that people in Egypt were waiting for my semi-final match and were eager for another gold. It was an enormous responsibility," Reda recalls. Despite El-Baz's injury, he won the bronze medal for reaching the semi-finals.

The semi-final was against one of the world's greatest boxers. Lopez Nunez Michel is from Cuba, a nation that has produced dozens of Olympic champions, and he entered the match as favourite. Lopez carried Cuba's boxing history with him into the ring while Mohamed Ali had only his nickname, Clay, and the support and sympathy of the spectators.

"I shall never forget that bout," says Reda. "It was the most important in my career. It would determine whether I would get the opportunity to go for the gold medal. And also I knew that, given the fearsome reputation of my opponent, beating him would spur my own determination to go for the greatest prize."

"But I was worried," Reda continues. "I had injured my shoulder in my first match and had to fight the next two with the injury. But El-Baz's winning the bronze medal spurred me on to try and match his achievement."

Eventually, though, Reda would be denied the opportunity to fight for the gold medal he so dearly wanted. He was scheduled to meet Russia's Alexander Povetkin in the final. But the Russian won the gold medal without having to throw a punch. Reda failed to pass the pre-final medical examination because of the shoulder injury which had been exacerbated in training. Povetkin won without entering the ring.

"I really wanted to win. A gold medal is something else, a gold is gold, and I know how much people wanted it and so did I. But the pain in my shoulder had developed to the extent that the medical committee decided that I couldn't box."

On his return to Egypt Reda, along with Egypt's four other medal winners, was awarded the sports merit of order by President Hosni Mubarak. The five all hope that their Olympic success will give their sports a higher profile and encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

The parents of Egypt's Olympic medal winners have long believed that the government should pay more attention to promising athletes. Their sons, they say, have achieved what they achieved largely under their own steam, helped by the support of poor or middle-class families. The medals, they say, have come at a cost of years and years of sacrifice, the burden of which has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the athletes and their families.

Mohamed Ali Reda, who is an employee at EgyptAir, has received LE750,000 in prize money for his silver medal success.

"It is a great deal of money. None of us had ever dreamed of earning such sums," says Reda. "When you are in a competition, financial gain is not the first thing on an athlete's mind. Prize money is never the main goal, though it is dishonest to claim that it is not an incentive. But I think it is fair to say that all of us, what we really wanted was to become of those people whose names go down in the annals of their sport."

Reda and his teammates were delighted when the government announced that the five Olympic medal-winners would be receiving life-time stipends -- LE3,000 a month for the gold medallist, LE2,500 for the silver and LE2,000 for the bronze. The support has relieved both the athletes and their parents.

"We had feared that after the end of the celebrations we would all be forgotten like our processors," explains Reda's father.

The 30-year boxer believes that the recognition that has come in the wake of his Olympic success will provide an incentive towards ever greater efforts as the Beijing Olympics approach in 2008.

"He's fortunate he won now," says Haj Reda. "Who knows, he might not have the same chance in the coming Olympics. But that said, years ago we could never have imagined that we would have an Olympic champion in the family. It wasn't even something that we would have dared to dream."

Mohamed Ali Reda's ambition, though, remains undimmed.

"Before winning the Olympic medals all any one of us wished for was to win their next match. Now, though, the stakes have changed and that is a great responsibility. Now we will be competing in defence of our Olympic titles. And that requires a different approach to the one we had taken in the past."

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