The stunning progress Egyptian Alaaeldin Abouelkassem made in a few months has eventually paid dividends after he clinched the fencing silver medal on Tuesday, a feat that looked far-fetched less than a year ago.
A little-known Abouelkassem gave fans back home something to cheer about after they bemoaned the elimination of a handful of Egyptian Olympians, winning the silver medal in the men’s individual foil after fighting bravely in a narrow 15-13 defeat by China’s Sheng Leii on Tuesday.
He had fans glued to their seats, although they hardly knew the sports’ rules nor what should the fencer do to score points. A frantic contest in the finale saw Abouelkassem, who hurt his arm in the first period, come within a whisker of winning gold, only to surrender his 13-11 lead.
But mission had already been done - Abouelkassem became the first Egyptian and African to win an Olympic fencing medal.
“I’m very glad and honoured to make history,” the 21-year-old said, having won out of the blue when many Egyptian anticipated medals from the likes of Judoka Hesham Mesbah, bronze medallist in 2008, and wrestler Karam Gaber, who won the country’s last gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens. The latter duo are yet to appear in the London Games.
In April 2011, the notion of clinching an Olympic medal was beyond the wildest dreams of Abouelkassem.
Looking lost in thought for a few minutes before receiving the silver medal on Tuesday, Abouelkassem probably recalled the modest goal he set at the time - just making an appearance at the London Games, and if not, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro edition would be a timely alternative.
“My main target is to qualify for the London Olympics, although my big dream is to qualify for the 2016 Olympics,” he said in an interview with Ahram Weekly back then.
His triumph crowned the relentless efforts he has exerted in the last 18 months, during which he had to overcome several obstacles to stay afloat in a country that was plagued by political turmoil following the 2011 January uprising.
He bore the fruit of his hard work, making light of the authorities’ constant disregard of non-football sports and the hard times sportsmen have endured since the 18-day revolt, which left the athletes’ preparations for the London Games in disarray.
“This is the situation of our country; we have to live with it. We never have good preparations like the best countries in the world, and matters got worse after the revolution,” he said.
“But this is my Olympic dream, and I did my best to realize it and win a medal.”
Few months after he said his objective was to qualify for the London Games, Abouelkassem reached the quarter finals of the men’s foil at the 2011 World Fencing Championship in Italian city Catania, which fired him with enthusiasm and raised the bar ahead of the Olympics.
He lost to Andrea Cassara, who went on to win the gold medal, to finish sixth. However, he avenged that defeat on Tuesday when he beat the Italian and Germany’s Peter Joppich, who is also a former world champion, en route to the Olympic final.
Love at first sight
Born to an Egyptian father and Algerian mother in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which is also the hometown of former medalists Gaber and Mesbah, Abouelkassem is a product of the Al-Selah Al-Sakandry club in Alexandria, which was established in 1892. He abandoned two other sports at the age of eight to begin his fencing adventure.
“I didn’t love karate because it’s a combat sport and I didn’t like swimming because it’s a difficult sport that needs lots of work. When I started practicing fencing, I loved it at the first sight,” he said.
“It’s a sport that depends on intelligence and technique, not only on force,” he added.
Abouelkassem joined the Egyptian national team in 2005 to embark on his international career and took part in the Junior World Championship one year later. He also won a bronze medal at the Mediterranean Games in the same year.
He burst onto the scene after winning the U-20 World Championship bronze medal in Italy in 2008 before winning the gold two years later at the same Championship in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Abouelkassem dedicated his London triumph to his late father, who died few months ago after urging his son to win a medal.
There is still room for more glory as he will compete in the men’s team foil on 5 August.
(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports)