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2019: Fame and shame in Egyptian sports

It was quite a year for Egyptian sports: tears of joy but also of disappointments. Ahram Weekly delves into the ups and downs of 2019 and how athletes will meet the challenges in the year ahead

Inas Mazhar , Friday 3 Jan 2020
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The U23 football team
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While it was indeed an outstanding year for some sports, it was a disaster for others.

In 2019, football, squash, handball, modern pentathlon, fencing, karate, taekwondo and weightlifting, all hoisted their flags high in continental and world events held throughout the year. But the senior football team and the weightlifters were forced to bow their heads down in shame.

Egypt was crowned the Under-23 football African champions and secured an Olympic ticket to the 2020 Olympic Games while the weightlifters lifted almost everything this year, breaking continental and world records on the way.

Ironically, though, it were these two same sports which left Egyptians deeply disappointed. Egypt embarrassed millions of fans with their early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations which was held at home. On the other hand, the weightlifting federation was discredited by both the International body of the sport and the International Olympic Committee after it was banned for four years from taking part in any national, continental or world events, including next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo because of a doping scandal.


Handball
Handball

In FOOTBALL, a few months after the senior team was ousted from the Africa Cup of Nations in the early round of 16, the younger U-23 team brought back smiles to Egyptian fans. In front of a full house at Cairo International Stadium, Egypt beat Côte d’Ivoire 2-1 after extra time in a thrilling U-23 Africa Cup of Nations final as the team not only lifted the Africa trophy but won the qualification ticket to the Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo next summer.

Both teams fought hard for the precious trophy. They had both secured the Tokyo Olympics the moment they won their semi-final matches and made it to the final. With the victory, the Olympic Pharaohs won their fifth game in as many matches. The Egyptians celebrated their first title in this third edition of the tournament. Egypt also joined Gabon (2011) and Nigeria (2015) in the list of honours of the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations champions.

Eight teams had battled it out in the two-week competition which took place in Cairo, but only three nations went to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as representatives of the African continent. The 16 matches played delivered to the world a taste of the talent in African youth football.

Despite being a youth competition, one of the recognisable features of the tournament was the striking attendance of matches at Cairo International Stadium. The semi-finals saw more than 60,000 inside the stadium and more than 10,000 fans — with tickets — denied entry, as gates were closed after the stadium reached full capacity. In the final, a record 68,000 fans were in attendance, the highest number as far as the quadrennial championship is concerned. The tournament also drew huge numbers in TV viewership with millions across the continent and beyond watching budding talents in African football, thus, breaking more records.

Besides lifting the U-23 Africa Cup of Nations, champions Egypt also dominated the individual awards of the competition. Team captain Ramadan Sobhi was the star of the tournament being named the Total Man of the final match and the Competition and the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Forward Mustafa Mohamed emerged as the tournament’s top scorer with four goals in five matches whilst goalkeeper Mohamed Sobhi was named the best goalie for having the safest pair of hands. With the team receiving the least yellow cards and no red cards, Egypt was named the Fair Play team.

On the clubs level, Zamalek captured the Egypt Cup for the sixth time in the last seven seasons after beating upstarts Pyramids FC 3-0 in Borg Al-Arab Stadium in Alexandria. Winning the Egypt Cup and the African Confederation Cup in May also made up for Zamalek’s loss of the Egyptian league title to arch-rivals Ahly. Zamalek took their tally to 27 Egypt Cup titles, nine behind Ahly who could only win the secondary domestic competition once in the last 12 years.

On the other hand, Ahly were crowned Super Cup winners for the 11th time in their history after a thrilling 3-2 victory over Zamalek, thus lifting their second trophy of the year.

Osman
Osman


WEIGHTLIFTING started the year impressively. In April, Egypt not only hosted the African Weightlifting Seniors Championships but dominated the stage with an impressive medals haul in almost all weight categories, men and women. Olympic bronze medalists and gold world champion Mohamed Ihab and Sara Samir both claimed three gold medals each in their weight divisions and in the process set three new African records in each event: snatch, jerk and total. Ihab’s three medals came in the -81kg weight category, while Samir claimed her three golds in -76kg. Other teammates, Salma Farag, Rania Ezzat, Ahmed Ashour, Mohamed Selim, Ragab Abdel-Hay and Fatma Ahmed all claimed gold, silver and bronze medals. They also dominated the African Games and the World juniors Championship.

On the island country of Fiji, Egypt was victorious at the 2019 Junior Weightlifting World Championships which was held in June when Egyptian prodigies won three gold medals. Their results proved their determination to follow in the footsteps of their seniors, the Olympic bronze medalists Ihab and Samir.

In the men’s, Uzbekistan dominated the table with six gold while Egypt’s Ali Ahmed Sayed Ashour bagged three gold medals in the 96kg category in the snatch, clean and jerk and the total. The 19-year-old thus led Egypt to a second place finish in the event. In third came Ireland with 15 medals — two gold, four silver and nine bronze.

In the women’s category, Egypt finished in sixth place out of 33 nations, claiming two gold medals and one silver thanks to Rania Ezzat who won two gold medals in the snatch and total and a silver in the clean and jerk in the 76kg weight category.

Khalafallah
Khalafallah


But the year didn’t end as successfully as it had started for the nation’s weightlifters. In October, the International Federation banned Egypt for four years after seven samples came positive in the African Junior Championships which was held in Egypt in 2016. The Ministry of Youth and Sports and the National Olympic Committee appealed to the Court of Sports Arbitration (CAS) which ruled against Egypt in December and confirmed the decision of a four-year ban. The decision thus killed the sport in Egypt, a sport that could have secured Egypt Olympic gold medals in the Olympic Games. While the Ministry of Sports and the NOC had showed solidarity with the Egyptian weightlifters and the federation, the minister had no choice, after the final verdict, other than send the whole case to the prosecution for what he said was a thorough investigation to unveil those responsible for shaming the nation and tarnishing its reputation in addition to denying Egypt the opportunity to win Olympic medals.

Al-Welili
Al-Welili


Handicapped weightlifters had their share of victories as well. Multiple Egyptian Paralympic and world champion Sherif Osman led Egypt to victory in the first mixed team event at the Nur-Sultan 2019 World Para Powerlifting Championships. Osman’s achievement came in the 2019 World Para Powerlifting Junior and Senior Championships held in the Astana Congress Centre in Kazakhstan. In the final against Brazil, Osman lifted an impressive 185kg after two-time world champion Rehab Ahmed snatched the second gold in the +50kg when she opened with a 100kg lift. Hani Abdel-Hadi took the silver in the +88kg. Four bronze medals each were won by Mohamed Al-Elfat in -80kg, who later cleared the bar at 200kg, Randa Mahmoud in the -86kg, Fatma Omar in the -67kg and Amal Mahmoud in the -73kg. In the overall Nur-Sultan 2019 standings, Egypt finished in fourth place with seven medals.

It was a significant year for HANDBALL which regained its glory days in the world championships. Their biggest win of the year came when they made history as they were crowned world youth handball champions. The young Egyptian handballers, winners of the International Handball Federation (IHF) Under-19 Men’s Youth World Championship, received a hero’s welcome at Cairo International Airport on their arrival back home from Macedonia. Thousands of Egyptians led by Egypt’s top sports official, Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi, along with families, friends and fans, celebrated with the players, a scene that is usually accorded only to winning footballers.

It was the first time that Egypt won a handball U-19 World Championship title and the first time that a non-European team was crowned world champions. The Pharaohs become the fifth team to win the competition since its inception alongside Denmark (three titles), France (two), Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro.
 

Farag
Farag

A month before, Egypt took the bronze medal in the U-21 World Junior Championship held in Spain. Egypt defeated Portugal 37-27 to take third. And, Egypt claimed an eighth-place finish at the World Handball Championship in January, the country’s best performance in almost two decades. In Denmark, it was the country’s best finish since 2001 when they finished fourth. The Egyptian Handball Federation is meanwhile gearing up to hosting the 2021 World Men’s Championships in Egypt, more than 20 years after hosting the same event in 1999.

KARATE also joined the triumphs with the karatekas topping the medal table at the 2019 UFAK Karate Championships held in Gaborone, Botswana, in July. The representatives of the African powerhouse nations of the sport dominated the event as the new kings and queens of African karate were crowned. Egypt took first place with 23 medals (11 gold, six silver and six bronze). Giana Lotfi became one of the biggest stars of the event when she claimed her third continental title while Ali Al-Sawi took his second consecutive male kumite -67kg continental title. Al-Sawi also contributed to Egypt’s gold medal in male team kumite.

ARTISTIC SWIMMING maintained its continental crown. Although Egypt ended up in 16th place in the World Artistic Swimming championship which took place in South Korea, it nevertheless qualified for the Tokyo 2020 as the best African team.

In the MODERN PENTATHLON, Egypt claimed two seats at the next Olympic Games by Haidi Adel and Sherif Nazir who have won the African quota. Egypt also gained some distinguished results in the World Cup and World Championships which were held throughout the year, including two golds won by Ahmed Al-Guindi in the men’s individual World Cup One and in the mixed relay with his teammate Adel. Egypt also won its second gold medal at the 2019 Pentathlon Junior and Youth World Championships and denied Russia a fifth victory at the end of a thrilling mixed relay, thanks to the duo of Salma Abdel-Maksoud and Al-Guindi who went home with a gold and a silver medal after his breakthrough success in 2018 in Kladno (CZE), while his fellow 2018 Youth Olympic Games champion Abdel-Maksoud finished with the same return. Egypt won two golds and two silvers. Great Britain claimed two silver and two bronze. Egypt also crowned a historic day with gold as Noureddin Karim and Omar Mohamed won the Under 19 Men’s Relay at the first-ever combined UIPM Youth World Championships. In the teams’ Egypt won bronze. Two days later, Al-Guindi hit hard, this time winning first place in the newly created Urban Games as he claimed first place in the first Urban Games which took place in September in Budapest, Hungary.
 

Fencing
Fencing

Pentathletes kept up their winning streak by winning 19 medals at the World Championships. It was a successful week for Egyptian athletes in the 2019 Pentathlon and Laser Run World Championships. Egypt’s medals haul in Budapest was huge, as it dominated the junior categories in the girls, claiming 10 medals, five of which are gold, two silver and three bronze. The Egyptian males weren’t as good as the girls, winning only three gold medals, two silver and three bronze medals. The junior and youth competitions involved ages under nine, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19. In the seniors mixed relay, Duo Salma Abdel-Maksoud and Islam Hamed took the gold medal despite close competition with their nearest rivals, the French duo, world champion Valentin Belaud and the female pentathlete of the year Elodie Clouvel. The Pentathlon family celebrated the end of the season in a star-studded gala dinner in Budapest, which saw Egypt’s pentathlete prodigy Ahmed Al-Guindi being named the world’s best junior athlete for the second year in a row. The world champion was awarded the title for his remarkable results in the sport throughout the year that resulted in seven medals, including four gold. In the Best Teams Award, Egypt came second to Russia while Hungary was third.

In August this year, Egypt won more medals than any other country in the AFRICAN GAMES and remained the nation with the most medals in the history of the championship. In Morocco, the Egyptians dominated the majority of the sports, winning medals in all the 22 events they took part in. There was an Egyptian athlete standing on every podium at this 12th African Games which saw the participation of more than 6,000 athletes competing in 26 sports. With a total of 273 medals — 102 gold, 98 silver and 73 bronze medals — Egypt dominated the 54-nation competition. It was the most medals won by a country in the Africa Games since the founding of the games in 1965 in Congo Brazzaville.

In this most prestigious sports event in the continent the Egyptian athletes not only dazzled the world but surprised themselves when they broke their own medals record they set in the 2015 Games in Congo where they won 217 medals — 85 gold, 63 silver and 69 bronze.

Zahran
Zahran


This year, the Egyptians were far ahead of their closest opponents, the Nigerians, who came in second place with 127 medals: 46 gold, 33 silver and 48 bronze medals. South Africa followed in third place with 87 medals: 36 gold, 26 silver and 25 bronze medals.

Algeria and Morocco followed in fourth and fifth place. The Algerians collected 125 medals — 33 gold, 32 silver and 60 bronze medals while the hosts Morocco took 109 medals — 31 gold, 32 silver and 46 bronze medals.

Egyptian SQUASH players continued to showcase their world dominance of the sport as they concluded the year leading the world rankings in both men and women. In the men’s, six out of the world’s top 10 are Egyptians with the first top four respectively, Ali Farag, Mohamed Al-Shorbagi, Karim Abdel-Gawwad and Tarek Momen. Mohamed Abul-Ghar and Marawan Al-Shorbagi are in eighth and 10th place. Interestingly, the women’s world list is no different with the top four also being Egyptians: Raneem Al-Welili, Nour Al-Sherbini, Nouran Gohar and Nour Al-Tayeb. Hania Al-Hammami made it to 10th place.

Throughout the year, Egyptians claimed the World Championships for men and women as well as the titles of almost all major events in all its forms: platinum, gold and silver, seniors, juniors, individuals and teams.
 

Al-Gendi
Al-Gendi

Such dominance once again put forth the question long asked by media, sports officials and fans: why are Egyptians so dominant in squash?

The New York Times asked the question in a recent story by David Segal who described Egypt’s excellence in ‘A squash mystery in Egypt. Is there something in the Nile?’ Segal related the story of Egypt’s history throughout the years for both men and women and on all squash levels, juniors and seniors, delving more deeply in order to unveil the secret, which after talking to many stakeholders, believed may be in the Nile itself. Whatever the truth is, Egyptians have for the past many years more or less owned world squash.

The MILITARY WORLD GAMES saw Egypt finishing 17th out of 109 countries as the country’s military men and women hauled nine medals at the International Military Sports Council (CISM) World Games held in the capital of Hubei Province in Wuhan, China. The 10-day event, the seventh of its kind, was held from 18-27 October and saw the participation of 109 nations.

The Egyptians took part in eight of the 31 events with a delegation of 83 male and female athletes taking part in taekwondo, swimming, judo, football, boxing, wrestling, the modern pentathlon and track and field. Egypt won its medals in boxing, wrestling, taekwondo and the pentathlon.

A gold medal went to Mohamed ‘Kisho’ Ibrahim in Greco Roman wrestling in the 67kg category while the second gold went to the modern pentathlon duo of Islam Hamed and Salma Abdel-Maksoud in the mixed relay. The two silver medals were won by Nour Abdel-Salam in the taekwondo women’s -49kg event while Abdel-Rahman Orabi claimed the second silver in the men’s light heavyweight 75-81kg category.
 

Al-Sayed
Al-Sayed

Three bronze medals were garnered in taekwondo, one for modern pentathlon and one in Greco-Roman wrestling. In taekwondo, Egypt’s Olympic champion Hedaya Malak claimed the bronze medal in the women’s -67kg while Abdel-Rahman Mostafa took the bronze in the -68kg. Another bronze medal went to Olympic champion Seif Eissa in the -80kg. Abdel-Maksoud added another medal to her tally by winning the modern pentathlon bronze medal in the women’s individual competition, whereas wrestler Abdel-Latif Ahmed claimed another medal in Greco Roman by winning the bronze medal in the 130kg weight category.

Before the tournament, Egypt was 33 in the overall ranking of medals in the history of the Military Games with a total of 21 medals: six gold, six silver and nine bronze.

The Egyptian women’s BASKETBALL team under-16 took second place in the African Championship to qualify for the World Cup next summer in Romania despite losing the final to Mali 84-48 at the Amahoro Indoor Arena in the Rwandan capital of Kigali with quarters 14-22, 7-25, 12-21 and 15-16 to come in second but still qualify for the junior World Cup to be held in Romania in June next year. It was an unprecedented achievement as Egypt had not qualified for the tournament in eight years. Egypt and Mali renewed a rivalry which dates back to the inaugural edition in 2009.

At the World Cup series in GYMNASTICS Ali Zahran Abu Al-Qasim won the gold medal on the still rings at the 2019 International Gymnastics Federation World Challenge Cup held in Paris. The 30-year-old shared the title with the defending champion Samir Ait Said of France. Both gymnasts earning identical difficulty and execution scores (14.950). Kentaro Yunoki of Japan took the bronze medal. Zahran, who two weeks earlier had won a silver medal in Koper, Slovenia, last struck gold at the World Challenge Cup in 2016 in Szombathely in Hungary and a month before his gold medal, he won the gold medal at the 12th edition of the African Games in Morocco.

The women’s Ahly Club volleyball team captured their 10th African crown after beating Tunisia’s Carthage. The Reds captured their 10th Women’s African Club Championship title after they outclassed their arch-rivals Carthage of Tunisia 3-1 (21-25, 25-15, 25-11, 25-19) in the final in Ahly hall in Cairo.

Malak
Malak


Egypt men’s PARAVOLLEY team qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics after winning the gold medal at the 2019 ParaVolley Africa Zonal Championships. The women, though, will miss Tokyo after they finished second. The men defeated hosts Rwanda 3-0 (25-6, 25-11, 25-16) in the final of the ParaVolley Africa Sitting Volleyball Championships, proving their supremacy at Kigali’s Petit Stade Amahor.

TAEKWONDO’s Hedaya Malak returned from injury to take the bronze medal at the Roma 2019 World Taekwondo Grand Prix in Rome from 7-9 June in the championship which included 255 of the highest-ranked taekwondo athletes from 53 countries who competed in four male and four female Olympic weight categories.

SWIMMING saw its sensation Farida Osman claiming a bronze medal in the 50m butterfly at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangiu, the Republic of Korea. At this year’s 18th FINA world championship, held from 12 to 28 July, Osman clocked 25.47 seconds to finish third. It was Osman’s second world medal and the second in Egypt’s swimming history. She had qualified for the final the day before after finishing fifth in the semis with a time of 25.79 secs. Later, Osman continued her extraordinary assault on the country’s record books after she claimed a gold and a bronze medal at the TYR Pro Swim competition in the US. Osman took the gold in the 50m butterfly, clocking 25.79 seconds. The following day, the 22-year-old Osman won the bronze medal in the 100m butterfly, clocking 59.13 seconds. Teammate Ali Khalafallah also added a remarkable victory, winning the gold medal in the 50m freestyle at the 2019 TYR Pro Swim Series held in Bloomington in the US. The 23-year-old Khalafallah, who was first in the heats, clocked 22.05 seconds to beat Robert Howard who had put on a strong effort to chase the Egyptian down, but couldn’t as he followed with 22.19 seconds. Khalafallah also beat the 2016 Olympic Games gold medalist Nathan Adrian of the US who touched in for third, clocking 22.22 seconds. The Egyptian’s gold medal qualified him for the 2019 World Swimming Championship which was held in Korea.
 

Gianna
Gianna

WRESTLING had its share of wins this year when the Greco Roman wrestler Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Sayed collected his second world title in less than two weeks, displaying a powerful performance in the final match as he beat Bulgaria’s Aliaksandr Liavonchyk to win the gold medal in the 67kg title bout. The Egyptian had capped off an amazing two-week run that saw him play in two continents to compete in two world championships, winning both. The defending U-23 world champion Al-Sayed had won the gold medal in the same weight category at the World Military Games just 10 days before. A two-time U-23 world champion, Al-Sayed, known as Kisho, wrapped up an impressive 2019 season with a U-23 World title, a World Military Games crown and a fifth-place finish at the 2019 Senior World Championships in September to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

According to the Egyptian National Olympic Committee, so far, 12 sports federations have confirmed their participation at the world’s most prestigious sports event, the Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Tokyo from 24 July to 6 August 2020. The sports federations include the following:

Football: The Egyptian U-23 football team was the latest qualifier after winning the Africa Cup of Nations which concluded in Cairo in November. The team will comprise 18 players.
 

Ihab
Ihab

Modern Pentathlon: One male and one female player — Sherif Nazir, winner of the African individual title and Haidi Adel, winner of the women’s African individual event. The number is to increase later next year from World Cup and World Championships events.

Shooting: Eleven marksmen and markswomen booked their seats in the Olympics — Ahmed Zaher (Trap, Azmi Mehelba (Skeet), Osama Al-Sayed (Rifle), Youssef Helmi (Rifle), Sami Abdel-Razek (Air Pistol), Adel Aziz Mehelba (Trap), Mostafa Hamdi (Skeet), Shaimaa Hashad (Rifle), Maggie Ashmawi (Trap), Al-Zahraa Shaaban (Rifle) and Radwa Abdel-Latif (Air Pistol).

Swimming has four swimmers who have made it to Tokyo — Ali Khalafallah, Marawan Al-Kamash and Ahmed Akram will take part in the men’s races, whereas the great Farida Osman will be the only female representative in the women’s race. On the other hand, the synchronised artistic team will also take part in both the teams’ and duet events of the artistic swimming competition.
 

Samir
Samir

Table-tennis: As African champions, both the men’s and women’s team will take part in the table-tennis team events. Each team includes three players.

Archery sees the participation of two teams, a male and female who will be taking part in the singles event.

Tennis also has two players in the Olympics — Mohamed Safwat in the men’s competition and Mayar Sherif in the women’s.

Canoe and Kayak had both the men’s and women’s singles event with a player participating in each event. Ali Hassan qualified for the men’s 200m individual boat while Sama Farouk for the women’s 500m boat.

Wrestling will be represented by Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Sayed in the -67kg weight category of the Greco Roman competition.

Sailing has one male and another female in the competition.

Rowing will also be represented with one player, Mohamed Abdel-Khalek Al-Banna.

Equestrian will be represented by the horse showjumping team which will comprise three riders. Accordingly, the number of athletes has, so far, reached 62 — 41 male and 21 female, with more chances yet available for more berths at the Olympic Games for other sports federations in the coming months.

Meanwhile, sports officials are looking ahead to 2020 with great expectations with eyes focused only on the Olympic Games. With more qualifying tournaments to be held in the first quarter of the year in various sports, the Egyptian National Olympic Committee is aiming at increasing the number of sports entries. Rio de Janeiro 2016 saw the highest delegation in the history of Egyptian participation. However, sports officials are seeking more seats and berths in Tokyo 2020.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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