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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Front Page

A promise is a promise

By Abeer Anwar

They said they would not disappoint and they did not. Egyptian athletes collected 28 medals in the Sydney Paralympics -- 28 more than their hapless compatriots in the Olympics proper. Finishing 23rd out of 123 nations, they put the country smack on the international sports map, a place where, until Sunday when the Games ended, it was rarely seen.

To be sure, the Egyptians might have slipped a bit since the Atlanta Paralympics four years ago. Then, Egypt ended up with 30 medals and in 23rd place as well, but out of 130 countries. Still, the Sydney tally made amends for an Egyptian non-show in the same city, albeit in a different Olympics, two months ago.

Bettering the Egyptians and everybody else in the Paralympics was the host nation Australia with 124 medals. Britain finished second with 107, followed by Spain with 94 medals. In Sydney, 347 world records were broken -- 12 in archery, 102 in athletics, 10 in cycling, 50 in powerlifting, four in shooting and 169 in swimming. Going by the wayside were 262 Paralympic records -- 16 in archery, 69 in athletics, six in cycling, 70 in powerlifting, four in shooting and 97 in swimming.

In the midst of such athletic prowess, Egypt bagged six gold medals, 11 silver and 11 bronze, setting new world records in athletics and powerlifting.

In athletics, Egypt hauled three gold, six silver and seven bronze for 16 medals, giving it 22 in the event. At the start of the second week, Mahmoud El-Attar, El-Sayed Moussa and Hani El-Behairy added to the medals, sweeping the men's javelin. El-Attar also set a new world record of 49.92 metres, breaking the record by nine metres.

Teammates Ibrahim Allam and El-Behairy won a gold and silver respectively in the men's shotput. Allam also set a new record of 14.77 metres, breaking the old record of 14.28.

In the men's discuss, Ali Ibrahim and Hossam Abdel-Latif clinched the silver and bronze. In the men's 400 metres, Ahmed Hassan got silver.

The women were not as fortunate. Though she holds the Paralympics record in the discus, Karima Feleifal failed to repeat her gold won in Atlanta. Brazil's Santos Ferreira took that honour and, for measure, broke Feleifal's record. Feleifal dropped to third after Tunisia's Khadija Jabella.

Zakia Abdeen also won a bronze medal in the javelin with a throw of 23.69 metres.

With just one leg, a high jumper manages to clear the bar
(photos: Reuters)

China replaced Egypt as the best in powerlifting, getting nine medals, five of them gold. Nigeria, too, overtook Egypt, notching second with nine medals, but only four of which were gold. Egypt was humbled into third place in the 20-nation field, raking in 12 medals -- three gold, five silver and four bronze.

In the 48kg category, Salem Badreddin epitomised Egypt's plight, getting himself disqualified after three unsuccessful attempts. "It was the first time for me to take part in such an event," Badreddin said apologetically. "I trained well but I was scared." Badreddin was so beside himself he cried a full two hours after his early exit.

Ussama El-Sergani compensated with a silver medal in the 52kg category. Ahmed Gomaa, the world champion, added to his list of achievements by coming out on top in the 56kg weight category and breaking his own Paralympic and world records. Gomaa, who paraded Egypt's flag at the opening and closing ceremonies, lifted 192.5kg, a half kilogramme more than his previous mark.

"I'm happy that I kept my title and ranking intact against such competition from China and Nigeria," said Gomaa, whose achievements are all the more remarkable considering he did not participate in any international event since the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics.

Metwally Mat'hana won the gold medal in the 50kg weight category, setting a new Paralympic record of 197.5kg. In the 67.5kg division, Shaaban Ibrahim won the silver medal. In 75kg, Sayed Abdel-Al pocketed the silver while the bronze went to Mustafa Hamed in 82.5kg.

In 90kg, Abdel-Moneim Farag received the bronze and Sherif Bakr the silver in 100kg.

Egyptian volleyballers got nowhere near the podium of winners, placing fourth. Though the team won all its preliminaries and blanked Hungary 3-0 in the quarter-finals, it met its match in the semi-finals, going down to Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-0. Strangely, Egypt beat Bosnia-Herzegovina by the same score in the first round. In the play-off for the bronze medal, a disenchanted Egyptian team lost to Finland 3-1. Still, coach Mansour Mahmoud said he was satisfied. "We are ranked seventh in the world, so fourth is progress," Mahmoud said.

Egypt's only swimmer, Essam Zeidan, failed to pick up a medal in the four events he entered, placing seventh in all his races. "I've been studying for almost two years in the US and I only trained six months prior to the Games," Zeidan said. Coach Amr Mohamed: "To produce a Paralympic champion, a lot must be spent on nutrition and training programmes. This is not available in Egypt."

The close of the two-week tournament was marred by yet another doping scandal. American Brian Frasure's A and B samples tested positive, meaning he not only lost his 200m silver medal but has been banned from the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

But drugs failed to dampen high spirits. "We made a promise that Sydney would be the 'athletes Games' and it was," John Grant, president of the Sydney Paralympics, said at the closing ceremony. "The performance across the board has risen. A new generation now understands the Games, the sports and the disabilities."

"We are preparing for a new generation," echoed Nabil Salem, president of the Egyptian Handicapped Federation and vice president of the International Handicapped Federation. But Salem was more concerned about youths getting little international exposure. "We have young inexperienced players who will not gain experience except by competing in the Paralympics. The federation's budget does not allow us to participate in many international events."

If such tender-age players were on the Egyptian team, it didn't show; if anything, they showed extreme composure. "We have witnessed an exceptional Paralympic Games," Michael Knight, Australian minister of the Olympics and Paralympics, said at the end. And, he might have added, an exceptional Egyptian squad.

A 'deserved' millennium opener

Steadward answers questions at a press conference at Sydney's Stadium Australia
Robert Steadward is one very happy man these days and for good reason. Measured by any yardstick, the Sydney Paralympic Games were a resounding success, a strong indication of the greater understanding and awareness by the public to disability sports. And Steadward, president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), has the figures to prove it. Sydney had more athletes, about 4,000, and more countries participating, 123, than any previous Paralympics. Tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies were sold out and 1.2 million tickets were sold in total, "far beyond what we expected."

"We also had greater exposure to the media," Steadward said, pointing to the contract signed with We Media to broadcast all the next Games. On the Internet, showed video of the Paralympics live daily from 6:30pm to 6:30am.

Sydney also witnessed the signing of a landmark agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which will try to bridge the gap between the IPC and the IOC. Among other things, the accord pledges more IOC financial assistance and administrative support to the IPC. It also gives the IPC president the freedom to sign agreements with national Paralympic and Olympic committees without consulting the IOC. "This is a great agreement that recognises the right of disabled sportsmen and puts them on an equal footing with the able-bodied, with the same rights and privileges," Steadward said.

Steadward was also grateful to IPC officials for classifying 90 per cent of the athletes before the Games began. Competitors must be classified according to their level of disability, an essential but tedious process. "It took a lot of weight off our shoulders."

Despite Steadward's picture of an uncomplicated Paralympics, the event was not without its problems. The drug scourge, which infiltrated the Olympics proper on a wide scale, found its way into the world of the disabled. For the first time, a Paralympics was tainted with doping and several scandals involving performance enhancing steroids made as many headlines as the performances themselves. On the subject, Steadward has zero tolerance. "I will always be inflexible about doping. Athletes who take drugs are cheaters. We are going to put a full programme into action to free our Games from doping. We will be in constant contact with national Paralympic committees and countries whose athletes have taken drugs." Steadward was thankful that most of the doping cases involved athletes who were neither medal nor title holders. "We can deal with the others easily."

Steadward was also less than enthusiastic about a trend which slowly emerged in Sydney. Some countries went to court to have the rulings of referees overturned. A few dissatisfied Arab athletes and a Canadian in the 800 metres decided to take their grievances to lawyers when referee decisions went against them. "I think that the IPC will review very carefully the future of this because as soon as we allow our national committees and countries to go to court, it is no longer sports. Sports problems should not be resolved in courts particularly since they do not have any understanding of disability sports or the athletes."

Steadward hailed new events introduced in this year's Paralympics. "Wheelchair rugby, for example, was a fantastic new sport. All the players and fans were excited." But he tempered the enthusiasm by adding that such a sport will need some time before it can be included in world and international championships.

On Egypt's 28 medals, which put it in 23rd place out of 123 countries: "As I've always said, Egypt's powerlifters are fantastic. They competed well and kept their Paralympic titles. What's more, their doping samples came clean, setting a good example."

Looking ahead, to the Paralympics in Athens in 2004, Steadward said he had met with Greek officials to make sure the city has the proper facilities for the disabled. According to Steadward, "With the help of the Greek people, we will be able to organise the Games successfully."

After working with Sydney and its organising committee for five years, the Athens Games will be up to scratch but as good as Sydney. "I can say these Games [in Sydney] were near perfect," Steadward said shortly after the event concluded. "It deserved to be the Games of the new millennium."

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