Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (570)
Let the Games begin
It was the spring of 1935. The Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Berlin the following year, was still a while away. Nevertheless, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reveals that the tournament raised a number of issues -- some old and some new -- that would be cause for heated debate on the sports pages of Al-Ahram
A year before the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the sports page of Al-Ahram featured a photograph of a letter by "a prominent Egyptian currently in Germany", as Al-Ahram described the sender. The newspaper did not reveal the writer's name, preferring instead to indicate his anonymity with a question mark. However, before turning to the letter itself, it is important to understand several reasons why the sports page attached such importance to it.
Politically, Egypt in 1935 was tense and uneasy. The Tawfiq Nasim government seemed to be doing all it could to evade the popular demand for the restitution of the 1923 Constitution, and during the 13 months of the government's dilly-dallying over this issue, nationalists were growing increasingly impatient and angry.
Secondly, Egypt had not participated in the previous Olympics, held in Los Angeles in 1932, which was the source of yet another of the many criticisms levelled against the government of Ismail Sidqi, which was in power at the time.
Thirdly, since the previous Olympics, Adolph Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The forthcoming Olympics would present the perfect opportunity to promote the Nazi regime, and its famous propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was mobilising all possible resources to do just that. Nor would there be anything to prevent the Nazis from taking advantage of the occasion. The venue for the forthcoming Olympics had been set for Los Angeles, a year before Hitler came to power. It was now virtually impossible for the Olympics Committee to change its mind, even though Washington did make a stab at having the venue changed.
Returning now to the above-mentioned letter, the anonymous Egyptian in Germany reports that Berlin had invited some 50 nations to participate in the Olympics, Egypt among them. He relates that Mohamed Taher, chairman of the Egyptian Athletics Committee, was given a warm welcome by the German organisers of the Games, who did all in their power to persuade him that the Egyptian delegation would receive the fullest care and attention. This pledge was translated into a bulletin issued by the Olympics Committee expressing its regret that Egypt had not been able to participate in the 1932 Olympics. The statement went on to laud Egyptian athletic talents, citing the names of previous Egyptian Olympic medal winners such as Noseir, Hussein, Ibrahim Mustafa and Samika. "It also praised Egyptians' skill in football and extolled the material and moral encouragement that His Majesty the King of Egypt has given to Egyptian athletes in order to maintain Egypt's place in the world of sports. The bulletin concluded with the declaration that the German people unite their voice with the Egyptian people in praising the efforts of the Olympics Committee in Egypt, which has succeeded in implementing its carefully devised agenda."
Meanwhile preparations were proceeding apace in Germany. The "eminent Egyptian" describes the Olympic village that had been constructed in the most beautiful of Berlin's suburbs. "Shaded by forests and surrounded by lakes, its many streets are lined by small houses to accommodate the athletes. Each house consists of several elegant and superbly clean rooms, containing all means of comfort in spite of their sparse and simple furnishings."
The village contained 40 kitchens and more than 60 dining rooms "so that the athletes from each country can be served the type of food and drink to which they are accustomed". It was also equipped with a post, telegraph and telephone authority, several fire stations, conference halls and press rooms.
The letter from Germany concludes: "Egyptians in Germany are awaiting the representatives of their beloved nation with fervent hearts and the ardent hope that the Egyptian flag will flutter proudly in this nation."
"They represented their nation with great honour" which strikes one as a recently invented euphemism for athletes who "won the prize of going" to the Olympics but otherwise returned empty- handed. The Al-Ahram sports pages of 1935 indicate that the expression, or at least the idea behind it, is much older. On 24 January of that year, the newspaper writes: "Egypt today is so keen to participate in international athletic competitions that it is determined to do so at all costs. It acts as though to merely participate is the pinnacle of honour and that the subsequent results are of no further import. Yet, if we examine our athletic condition we can only wring our hands over our participation in this tournament, as there is no way we can grant that the members of our team have attained the international standard of the games in which they are to participate... The fondness that many of our athletes and managers have for travelling is what has motivated them to participate regardless of any other consideration. As for the rest of us, to put stock in all the compositional essays advocating participation, regardless of the ills, is of little service to the national awakening to which we all aspire."
The advice of this critic of 70 years ago is still valid. His recommendation was to follow the lead of many other nations, the most recent of which was Turkey. Turkey, which had abolished all the old systems, "has poured its energies into building the construction of new and solid foundations capable of supporting a huge edifice. It is common knowledge that Turkey has been so preoccupied in its five-year development programme that it has extended this to include the institutions for physical education, for which reason it has withdrawn from the World Cup in football."
On another occasion, the sports page commentator drew readers' attention to the care and attention that Belgium devotes to the individuals that represent it in international sporting events. Egypt should do the same, he urged. Moreover, all Egyptian athletes should be subjected to a thorough physical examination as part of the screening process for their admission into the Egyptian team, and these same members should be reexamined shortly before departure "so that if it is discovered that one of them is seriously ill, he can be temporarily taken off the tam until he recovers and presents no danger to other team members".
On the question of physical health Al-Ahram readers were in for a disturbing surprise when the sports page relayed the results of a report by Dr Mahgoub Thabet, the Egyptian University head physician. The report contained many "painful facts", as the newspaper put it, among which was that nine per cent of the secondary school graduates that were admitted into university that year "do not practise athletic activities in a manner that helps them strengthen their lungs and stimulate their muscles". Furthermore, many of these were infected with bilharzia, hookworm and other parasites.
Perhaps this is what prompted Hussein Fawzi Mohamed, an Al- Ahram staff writer, to produce a series of short articles on "athletic culture". The last two of the five instalments focussed on medicine and physical exercise. In the first of these, Fawzi Mohamed discusses genetically inherited traits such as mental illness and drug addiction. Physical exercise, he said, was the best cure for such afflictions. He also urged the government to pass a law "prohibiting marriage to persons afflicted with physical or mental illnesses that can be passed on to subsequent generations".
"The remedy of fasting" was the subject of the second of these two articles. This remedy was the latest discovery of physical education scientists, Fawzi Mohamed wrote. It was founded on the theory that "the stomach and intestines harbour harmful bacteria" and that "constipation, indigestion and the inability of the stomach to process food debilitate and destroy the human body". These scientists therefore recommended that the best cure was to fast, drink plenty of water and practise simple exercises for strengthening and cleansing the digestive tract. "Once digestion improves, the body will be properly nourished as it will be capable of fully benefiting from the food it intakes."
Also, according to the author of this short series on physical health, fasting gives the stomach a rest and enables the intestines to thoroughly process and digest the remaining foodstuffs in it, while large quantities of water are the best way to clean out the digestive tract. "When you feel constipated, instead of taking a laxative, commence a regime of fasting and drinking water and you will soon find yourself feeling better," he advises.
In spite of the foregoing prognoses of the performance standards of Egyptian athletes and the state of health of Egyptians in general, the sports page editor of Al-Ahram, Ibrahim Allam, drew up what he called a "golden record" of the names of Egyptian world class athletes who had brought honour to the name of Egypt in international sporting competitions. The list was his way of expressing his optimism over Egypt's performance in the forthcoming Olympics and of encouraging other Egyptian athletes to add their names to the "golden record".
A second hot topic raised by the Egyptian participation in the 1936 Olympics pertained to the "training problem". "As we all know, athletic training throughout the world concentrates on practice, for those countries have already completed the process of establishing the rules of games and the methods the trainers must follow in the pursuit of their duties. This has greatly facilitated the ability of the training recipients to understand what their trainers want from them and the latter have so committed the methodology of their profession to heart that they need waste little time in explaining their aims and what they require." Evidently, the sports page writer felt that this principle, that was self-evident "throughout the world", was not sufficiently put into practice in Egypt. The problem, in short, boiled down to unqualified trainers which, in turn, led the sports page writer to discuss an issue that touches a raw nerve until the present day: relying on foreign trainers.
Those in favour of the idea, he said, maintain that even European countries engage trainers of other European countries if those trainers prove better equipped for the task. "The response to this argument is easy," he continues. "When you compare the climate, the ways of life and the traditions between the European country that requires a trainer and the European supplier, you find that the differences are not so great as to pose difficulties in understanding." Egypt, on the other hand, was an Oriental country and thus "differs vastly from Europe in ways of life, traditions, climate, language, domestic upbringing and education". These differences should not be underestimated when considering the question of whether or not to engage foreign trainers.
On the other hand, there was no dismissing, as some were want to do, the importance of trainers in forming superior athletes. In reality, there was no such thing as a "champion by fluke". Egyptian champions themselves are the first to give credit for their performance to their trainers and teammates, for "no one person knows the secrets of the game, and especially the secrets that led to his rise to prominence".
The problem remained that many Egyptian trainers professed to be professionals whereas in fact they were amateurs. Yet "these individuals aspire to shoulder the burden of training in a nation that intends to develop a sound athletic training policy for the future." As aspiring trainers were not yet qualified for this task, the writer offered a solution to their predicament, which was to engage experts from Europe to create a corps of Egyptian athletic trainers. The experts would be engaged for a short period of time to instruct classes of 10 Egyptians in the principles and methodology of training for each sport. The 10 graduates, all uniformly instructed, would then be dispersed among the various sporting teams in the country to relay the instruction they received at the hands of the European experts to others who aspire to be professional trainers. "This is the way to germinate the embryonic talents we have in a uniform and trustworthy manner. To engage trainers without any means of supervision or control produces, at best, uncertain results. As long as 'every sheikh has his own school,' as is the case so far in our country, it will be impossible to develop a single scale by which to measure their soundness of judgement."
Apparently, the Egyptian Olympics Committee was late in taking Al-Ahram 's advice, which was a source of considerable disappoint to the newspaper's sports page writer. By the time the foreign trainers got to Egypt there will only be a month or two left before summer approaches, he complained. "We all know that most of our athletes and administrators are unable to pursue their athletic activities in the summer, let alone the fact that are sporting federations suspend their activities during this season. We will have thus forfeited the 1934-35 season, leaving us only one more approximately six-month athletic season to prepare for the 1936 Games. Moreover, this six-month interval may prove to be shorter yet, because it might take the whole of September for the clubs to get back in action and the entire month of October to build the athletes back up to the levels they were at before the summer holidays."
It was not just Egyptian trainers who had to be brought to par, according to the Al- Ahram sports commentator, but also judges and referees. He writes that he had received many complaints regarding the low numbers, poor standards and rigidity of athletic judges, and that this did not apply to a single sport but rather to all sports, although the Egyptians' preferred game, football, came in for special mention.
The just and appropriately educated referee had to have certain qualifications apart from just experience on the field and a respectable age. This was not just the writer's opinion, but also that of all Egyptians who now shared the belief that their country needed a revival in the refereeing profession. "We need to produce an educated class of referees, because contemporary civilisation can no longer accept the judgement of unlettered persons who are not thoroughly familiar with the rules of the game, let alone its particular secrets, canons, history of development, as well as the type of accidents that can occur in the field and the methods of treating these incidents in accordance with the law."
Before leaving this subject, Al-Ahram turned to the question of physical education instructors in public schools, whom the Ministry of Education did not ensure were appropriately qualified and trained. "Even those whom the government has sent abroad on educational missions have returned only to ensconce themselves in a corner of the old system, without uttering a sound, as though they were the mute descendants of the master sergeants of the past." The article concluded with an appeal to the ministry to instruct school masters to devote serious attention to the inculcation of an athletic spirit among their charges, all the more so as there was no evidence that the "athletic expenses" exacted from their charges' parents or guardians were being put to use towards this end.
On 21 October 1935 the Al-Ahram sports page raised a third contentious issue: sports commentary. By way of broaching this subject, the writer notes that Al-Ahram was the first Egyptian newspaper to introduce a sports column, although its lead was quickly followed by others. "The consequence of this rush to emulate us was that sports criticism was undertaken by writers who had no idea what they were talking about, and when their ideas ran dry they began to talk about personalities and their idiosyncrasies." But the writer held particular contempt for those pseudo- commentators who made their living from the free passes to which they were entitled. Sometimes working for 10 newspapers at once, "these wealthy individuals distribute their passes left and right to their friends and friends of friends." He adds, "Fortunately, when the idea of forming a critics association came to fruition, this body moved to remedy this practice and helped newspapers recover from these wasted efforts."
The society also succeeded in persuading many newspapers to engage properly educated talents as critics. "Such action must be sustained in order to eventually free sports commentary from those hordes that invaded this field of endeavour from the beginning, and to ensure that all the critics' seats will continue to be filled by young and educated talents."
Undoubtedly, what got the writer onto the subject of the Sports Commentators Association was that earlier that year, in May, the society was restructured for the third time. Al-Ahram warmly welcomed the move "as commentary is the third component of athletic life". True, there was some discord between the members of the newly restructured organisation and their colleagues from the former one, but differences were quickly resolved and many members of the old organisation joined the new one.
In addition to the quality of commentators, their newly revamped society also set itself other missions, among which was to disseminate "athletic culture". Towards this end, it organised a "lecture committee" which engaged Egypt's first weightlifting champion to deliver the first in the series of lectures.
The resolutions the society adopted in its meeting of 27 May provide the most succinct idea of its other endeavours. These included joining the International Federation of Sports Journalists, creating a committee for strengthening athletic relations between Egypt and its eastern neighbours, creating a committee for promoting communications between athletes from eastern nations and organising a summer nation-wide football event. Most important of all, however, was the association's determination to bring sports to the Egyptian countryside, having noted that organised athletic activities were restricted to the capital and other major cities. In order to promote this drive, the society stated that such events as athletic festivals would unearth latent talents "buried in the countryside", which could then be given "appropriate training in Cairo in order to raise them to the international standards that would enable them to represent Egypt in the 11th Olympics in 1936".
The plan was put into action. However, in its lengthy report, "Rural sports festivals and their results", which appeared on 13 June, the society could not conceal its disappointment. It attributed the failure of the experiment to several reasons, among which was that the various sporting federations did not participate in the hosting and management of the events. As a result, the events were managed by persons who were neither competent nor properly trained and, more importantly, most of the participants were not trained athletes and thus were not sufficiently prepared to compete in these events. The society could not help but to conclude that the idea of staging rural sporting events as a means for recruiting talents for the Olympics was a failure. In despondent tones, the report added, "Egypt and the members of the Sports Critics Committee wasted half a year's worth of efforts. The hopes we had pinned on these events had rested on a frail foundation and the mistaken perception that they should focus on track and field athletics and other such activities that were crammed into their overly ambitious programme." Nevertheless, unwilling to leave readers with a totally negative impression, Al-Ahram hastened to add that the rural sports festival had accomplished one of its objectives: "It has awakened an athletic spirit in the countryside, or at least in some provincial capitals."