Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
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Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei
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Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei:

The moral of the sport

Before stepping on the start line he is the ultimate doubting Thomas; once the race begins, he will do his best to ensure that Egypt is first at the finish line

Profile by Fatemah Farag

Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei
proudly donning the Olympic Order
If sports in Egypt has a knight in shining armour, it is Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei. It all began when he became the speed swimming icon of the '50s; since then, he has stood out in the world of Egyptian sports as a man who will always speak his mind, almost nonchalantly spurning the top positions in the country's sports hierarchy on what he feels are matters of principle. He has held the highest of positions and resigned from them, he has rubbed against the grain and in the end his advice continues to be sought after by the establishment he criticises while enjoying the admiration of sports aficionados. In short, he is a sportsman of the old world, where how you played was more important than winning, where being a sportsman meant embodying a moral code by which men not only won championships but also fought and died fighting for their country.

Abdel-Aziz: lean and polished to a tee, a charmer in more ways than one and a meticulous man with a knack for perfectionism, which while admirable, you cannot help but feel might be daunting to those very close to him. (I can almost see him cringe as I accidentally sit on my eye-glasses, as I ready for our interview.) He has, in a neat pile, six volumes of press clippings related to his career, which he has collected over the years and filed according to date. Next to them is a pile of photo albums, some for sports and one dedicated to bridge. Before I begin to sample the offering, he pulls out a neatly typed CV, "updated a week ago."

Speak to him about sports, the situation in the country, anything of a public nature and you will find him engaging and forthcoming. Ask him the personal questions and you feel him move away from you and into himself. Your childhood? "I was born in 1932," he tells me. Not satisfied, I push further: Where? An uncomfortable frown forms almost imperceptibly beneath the skin of his brow. "In Munira." The family? "My father taught mathematics."

Yet I persisted: how about school? It was the way out, and in minutes we were in the midst of a discussion about educational policy then and now and what it has all meant for sports -- El-Shafei is back in his element. "In those days school sports were of a fine quality; when there was a football match between schools it was an event that people from all over would attend. Scouts would come from the major sports clubs to look for candidates to join their teams. Alas, today clubs must raise their own competitors and school activities are no longer worthy of merit." It is an unfortunate state of affairs as far as he is concerned because "sports is like a pyramid: the larger the base the higher the apex will go and when you narrow down the base, by which I mean the number of people playing sports in general, then you won't have much to choose from."

But more of that later and back to the old days. "I will never forget my first swimming competition. Of course most schools did not have swimming pools but there was the pool of the Ministry of Education and that is where the school finals of 1946 were held. King Farouk attended. Imagine! If these were not well organised and worthy competitions would a head of state attend them?"

dashing duo: with Omar Sharif

with Monsieur Alexander

Haydar Pasha salutes the young swim-er

sportsmen of the old world, L-R: Kandil, El-Gamal, Nazih and Abdel Aziz
El-Shafei goes off on a tangent. The swimming pool of course had eight lanes and, he tells me, the strongest swimmers are always positioned in the middle lanes -- four and five -- so they can see each other ("You will note that in Sydney all the winners come from these lanes"). Anyway, the rest of the story is that from where Farouk was sitting he could not see lanes seven and eight and the organisers thought fit to remove these lanes from the race altogether. "What an uproar ensued! The schools whose competitors were scheduled for those lanes got very upset and argued like anything until they got their students in. It was all taken very seriously."

Abdel-Aziz did not win that day, but it was the first step on a road that would eventually make him Egypt's national champion in 1950. "There is something that I think is worth pointing out here," he says. "At the time I entered Fouad I [now Cairo] University's Faculty of Commerce, we had competitions in each sport within every faculty and then the total number of points was calculated towards the Fouad Cup, given to the faculty with the most points. Well, in my first year my faculty took second ranking but in all three remaining years we took the cup. I think I had something to do with that since I represented my faculty in six sports: swimming, water polo, basketball, volleyball, tennis and target shooting."

I looked impressed but he shrugged off the admiration, "I guess I had what you could describe as an average aptitude for sports."

But El-Shafei knew that to disperse oneself would detract from perfection; hence, his decision to concentrate on swimming. His specialties became the 100, 200 and 400m races -- free style or crawl. He also won the title of "Best Swimmer in Egypt" in the years 1954, 1955 and 1956 -- an annual award which calculated the points won by top swimmers in different strokes and distances.

Of course Abdel-Aziz had the benefit of a talented instructor, Monsieur Alexander, a Hungarian who fled communism in his country and came to live in Egypt and who is credited for the success of the Egyptian water polo team at the time. He was also lucky to have learned from and competed against some of Egypt's great swimmers of all time. "My hero was Taha El-Gamal, who was by far the best swimmer Egypt ever knew. He was a finalist in the 1948 Olympics and I inherited his style. I also remember Mimi [Mohamed] Qandil, Fouad Nessim (who was the polo team goalie), Gamal Khalifa who was famed to be the most handsome man in Egypt and his brother Nazih."

These men were more than just proficient swimmers; to El-Shafei, they were role models in the full sense of the word. "Gamal was a member of the Royal Guard, who were exempt from joining the front lines in the [1948] Palestine War, yet he insisted on going. His brother, Nazih, Nessim and Qandil all died in that war. Gamal was fated to die in the War of 1956. The fact that they were all martyred in wars defending their country is not a coincidence. They were men of the highest moral calibre and I am very happy to have met up with their generation. They taught me a lot about what it means morally to be a sportsman."

El-Gamal was head of the national team and he took El-Shafei on as a team member. "Whenever we raced he would always win," he remembers with a grin. "Just to give you an example of the kind of spirit that prevailed, El-Gamal used to live near me on Al-Mubtadayan Street and on his way to training, he would stop by my house and pick me up on his motorcycle."

The lessons learned at home served Abdel-Aziz well and his star shone not only at home but on the regional and international levels of competition. As a swimmer he represented Egypt at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics; in Rome, in 1960, he was head of the water polo team. Although scheduled to participated in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, Egypt withdrew at the last minute as a result of the Tripartite Aggression. He also represented Egypt at the first three Countries of the Mediterranean Competitions (the brainchild of Ahmed El-Demerdash El-Touni), held in Alexandria in 1951, then in Spain 1955 and finally in Beirut in 1959, as well as at the Arab Games in 1953 and 1961, not to mention two international university competitions, the first in Italy (1949) and the other in Budapest (1954; at the time he was enrolled in the master's programme).

Another realm of conquest is bridge. Today, Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei heads the National Bridge Team, which returned only a couple of weeks ago from the Bridge Olympics in Sweden. His long-term partner is Omar Sharif, and the two have made a dashing couple at a host of international events. "I learned to play during the 1952 Cairo fire. There were curfews at the time and we would sit at the Ahli Club for long hours with nothing to do. So I learned bridge."

The total sum of the medals El-Shafei has won in Egypt's name in both fields is 14 gold, eight silver, and six bronze. He has also been awarded the Sports Medal of the First Class in 1972 and 1980, the Republic's Medal of the Second Class in 1973, the Order of Merit of the First Class in 1975, the Medal of Work of the First Class in 1980 and the Olympic Order in 1984.

El-Shafei gave up competing in speed swimming in 1956, his motto being "always know when to stop -- when you are still ahead of the game." He was head of the Egyptian water polo team between 1956 and 1961. Of all the competitions he participated in, perhaps he holds the Olympics in the highest esteem; after all, it is an event that embodies many of the qualities Abdel-Aziz values most about sports. "I was so proud, I mean it is the ultimate honour for any sportsman, and especially those involved in individual sports. You see, the Olympics are the basis of sports in modern times. That is why, even though the Olympic record may not be the highest, the world record usually being higher, they remain the games of higher moral value."

It is an important point, and so he explains further. "In the days of the first Olympics, there were many wars. But for the duration of the 15 days of the competitions, all wars were required to halt. Today's Olympics also stand on the moral grounds of peace and love between people. Today's games stand against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sex. I would go as far as to say that the power of sports -- and the Olympics in particular, I think -- surpasses that of organisations such as the United Nations. When did a delegate of the United States first meet up with a delegate of China? It was at opposite ends of a ping-pong table at the Olympics. This year, we all watched a Korean flag being carried by two people, one from the South and one from the North. Who barred South Africa from joining their ranks until Apartheid came to an end? These examples illustrate the true meaning of the Olympic Games."

In his service of these ideals, Abdel-Aziz El-Shafei was awarded the Olympic Order in 1984. "There were two incidents in particular that were singled out by the Olympic Committee in giving me this award," he explains. "After I stopped swimming competitively, I was the Olympic judge for water polo in Mexico 1968, and then head of the Egyptian delegation during the 1972 Munich Olympics, then again during the 1976 Montreal Olympics."

We sit back and go through the details, the first of which can only be described as a life-shattering event.

"I was summoned to the Olympic Village at 5.00am. The day before the inauguration ceremony, on my arrival, I found out that Palestinian guerrillas had taken the Israeli delegation hostage, killing two people in the process and were asking for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners as well as a plane to take them to Alexandria. It was a tense situation and I have always said I do not think that sports and politics should be mixed." At this stage all representatives of the Arab delegations were present and they were successful in buying time -- until 7.00pm. "My immediate concern was the safety of the Egyptian delegation. I requested a plane from Cairo. Telephones to Egypt at that time were really bad so I had to make the request through the Arab League office in Bonn, and then I was called back to Olympic headquarters at 6:30 in the evening only to find that myself and El-Touni were the only people to show up for the meeting."

Abdel-Aziz was about to embark on a grave mission: to offer the guerrillas a deal whereby they would release hostages and the Olympic administration would in turn secure their safe exit. "All delegations were connected by an underground walkway and when I got to the exit, I looked up to find the whole square surrounded by snipers. The only thing I could hear was my heartbeat and all my eyes could look for was a lamppost or something to hide behind if shooting started. Anyway, I reached the destination and talked to a masked young man who could not have been older than 25. You could not help feel compassion for someone who believed so strongly in his ideals that he had embarked on an operation knowing that the chances for his return were close to nil. I gave him the message but he told me there was no going back and if the German government was going to take them out they had dynamite strapped on and everyone would go if they did."

Later, ensconced in his hotel room along with then Minister of Information Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Minister of Tourism Zaki Hashem, they watched as the Germans, under the guise of transporting captors and captives to Alexandria, took them instead to a military airport where they shot the Palestinians, setting off the dynamite. Sixteen Israelis died, as did seven Palestinians; one miraculously survived and served 20 years in a German prison. "I told them that I felt the Germans would do this but they were very determined," he comments with a sad shake of the head.

But then, El-Shafei is against mixing politics with sports, so back to sports. How well has Egypt done in the mother of all competitions? "We have 18 Olympic medals, the first won in 1912 by Ahmed Pasha Hassanein who was a fencer." It is noteworthy that most of these medals were won in the earlier part of the 1900s. Why? "It reflects the sad fact that Egypt has not kept up with the international arena in sports. For example, in the 100m swimming race, when I was a national champion my record was 56 seconds. At that time the world record was 56 seconds. Today, we have advanced: the Egyptian record is 53 seconds, but at the same time the world record is a staggering 43 seconds. I have often argued that to say we have advanced is misleading, since advancement can only be measured comparatively."

To ask about the reasons for this state of affairs is to open a Pandora's box. "Where do I start? Sports is related to every element of life. So look at the levels of health, education, the state of the environment and discipline in general and you get an idea. To upgrade sports in Egypt is not as simple as putting playgrounds in schools; it is about a comprehensive policy that deals with all these elements." This is how Abdel-Aziz explains the fact that despite the ever increasing sums of money allocated towards improving sports in Egypt, little benefit is reaped. "To be serious about upgrading sports we have to be honest about identifying the problems, and that is still lacking."

This willingness to take on the hard facts has made Abdel-Aziz a major player, especially during times of crisis, at the Ahli and more particularly the Gezira Club. Further, he was called upon by the government to be the top official responsible for sports in Egypt between 1977 and 1979; he was a member of the Higher Council for Youth and Sports between 1972 and 1977 and again between 1996 and 1999. Today, he is head of the committee drafting by-laws for sports institutions. In 1992, he was the man who argued against Egypt hosting the All-African Games, because it was unprepared to do so, and who then took over and turned the games into a success before resigning his position because of differences in opinion with the establishment.

He continues to stand on the front lines, urging people to face the facts and remedy the situation. "My service to sports is voluntary. I do not believe that this should be a source of livelihood or else one might compromise. I also think that if someone loves something and believes in it, it is not a title or a position that makes him more able to service it. But finally, I strongly believe in the most open, honest, informed and democratic debate so that we have the tools to make the best decisions possible. But once a decision has been made, we must all do our best to make the best of everything." And so he stretches just one inch further towards the finish line.

photo: Mohamed Mos'ad

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