Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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And now for the hard part

By Abeer Anwar

Only one week after coming first in the 9th Pan-Arab Games in Jordan, Egypt's sportsmen rolled up to Johannesburg for the 7th All-Africa Games. Yet while our latest victory is still fresh in every memory, there is scant hope of an immediate repeat. Jordan may have seen the national squad garner a record 264 medals, including 106 gold, but finishing first in South Africa will be an uphill task. This knowledge is all the more galling, since the host nation won the 1995 Games in Zimbabwe by only the slimmest of margins -- one gold medal more than second-place Egypt. Having upset Egypt's tradition of easily coming first in African competitions so soon after their return to the regional scene, following the lifting of the ban on the apartheid regime, South Africa will this year be looking to extend its lead.

Egypt is not taking the challenge lying down. We will be represented in Johannesburg by one of the largest delegations among the 52 participating countries -- a total of 400 players, competing across a wide range of events, namely, track and field, basketball, volleyball, handball, swimming, boxing, cycling, gymnastics, hockey, taekwondo, judo, weightlifting, wrestling, table tennis, and karate.

So far, this quantitative approach would seem to be paying off. On the first day of the Games, Egypt collected one gold and one silver medal, in the rhythmic individual and team events in gymnastics.

But problems remain. Two years ago, the tournament's organising committee struck off seven sports in which we have always excelled -- equestrian, diving, rowing, shooting, the pentathlon, windsurfing and water skiing --, and replaced them with three new sports -- rugby, softball and baseball -- about which we as a nation know nothing. The committee justified its decision by claiming that there were not enough countries to organise a proper competition in the seven defunct sports, although they are all Olympic disciplines.

Yasmin Youssef Yasmin Youssef snatching the first gold medal for Egypt (photo: Reuters)
"The organising committee knew we would win the gold in these sports, so it cancelled them to make it very difficult for us to finish first," said Aimed El-Foli, head of the Egyptian delegation.

Accommodation has also proved something of a headache for the Egyptian squad. Initially, the teams were allocated rooms far from the main stadium and training centres. "It took us four hours each day just to get to and from the centres," said Abdel-Aziz Ghoneim, a member of the delegation. Accommodation has since been shifted to a site closer to the stadium, but only after several complaints were lodged.

The country's taekwondo players in particular have had a hard time of it. Again, the organising committee seemed determined to make problems, cutting the number of Egyptian players by 50 per cent at the last minute. Not only did their plane fares go to waste as a result, but this decision could well cost the country four gold medals. South Africa is currently ranked seventh on the continent in taekwondo, while Egypt is an undisputed first. "They should have informed us beforehand, not after we paid for the journey," said Mustafa Bekir, head of the Egyptian Taekwondo Federation.

However, perhaps Egypt's greatest handicap is to be participating in a second consecutive championship without adequate time to rest. No sooner had the players wrapped up the Pan-Arab Games in Amman, than they were boarding the plane for Johannesburg. "We tried to have the timing of either the Arab or African Games changed," said Mounir Thabet, head of the Egyptian Olympic Committee. "But in the end, we had no choice but to participate in both events. If we failed to show up for either one, we would have ended up paying hefty fines and being suspended."

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