Swimmers Farida Osman and Ahmed Akram, and footballer Sara Essam are Egyptian athletes who were in a two-week coronavirus quarantine after they arrived from abroad.
Osman, 25, arrived in Marsa Alam Airport from Washington DC where she had to fly first to Virginia where she is training. She decided to join her family in Egypt in the Covid-19 lockdown but had to spend two weeks in quarantine in Marsa Alam, a town in south-eastern Egypt, located on the western shore of the Red Sea and an increasingly popular tourist destination.
Osman stayed at a five-star hotel where she was given a suite with a garden, all paid for by the Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt) Fund. But according to Randa Al-Salawi, Osman’s mother who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly, “Farida decided to pay her quarantine expenses as a donation to Tahya Misr. She felt that this money can be more beneficial for those who are in need more than her.” Al-Salawi added that her daughter’s quarantine time was relaxing and as she planned her future training programme.
”First I have to thank everyone who helped me return to Egypt and be with my family and friends,” Osman told the Weekly. “I felt I wanted to return to Egypt as the Covid-19 cases were rapidly increasing in the US and I felt it would be safer to be with my family.
“When I reached Marsa Alam, everyone was so nice and everything was very well-prepared for us. All what we needed was there and I was lucky to have a room with a garden where I spent an hour every day doing my fitness course according to the plan drawn up by my foreign coach. I did yoga, read, had time to watch TV and enjoyed Netflix to the max.
“It was a bit of a long time away from my family whom I longed for but I understood that this was essential. Doctors were checking our temperatures twice a day and they were really great. Then I arrived in Cairo and this was a blessing. I joined my family again.
“I will use the home for some fitness exercises like medicine balls. I am blessed to have a swimming pool at home so I will start training at once and I have got some of my training equipment with me from the US, but the big obstacle is that I still need a gym as it is very important for any swimmer. I started making some phone calls and I hope to be able to reach a solution.”
Osman is the fastest female swimmer in Africa. She holds the senior national records for the butterfly, freestyle and backstroke, as well as African records in the 50m and 100m butterfly. She participated in the London 2012 and 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games but did not win any medals.
Osman represented Egypt in the 2017 World Swimming Championship held in Budapest and snatched the bronze medal in the 50 butterfly. Osman was also African record holder three times. This was a historic moment for Egypt as it was the first ever medal an Egyptian has won in the World Championships.
Osman’s teammate Ahmed Akram also joined her on the same plane that was coming back from Washington DC.
Akram, 23, is the Youth Olympics gold medalist in 2014 in Nanjing, China, and surprised all in the 16th FINA World Championship held in Kazan, Russia, in 2015 when he came in fourth in the men’s 1,500 metre freestyle at the 16th FINA World Championships, the first Egyptian to reach the men’s 1,500 metre final at the World Championships, in addition to clinching two gold medals in the 2015 All-Africa Games.
Akram was stuck alone in North Carolina where he has been coaching the swim team at NC State University and preparing for Tokyo 2020. He was planning on staying in the US until the Olympics, and was targeting a meet in Indianapolis in May to secure his A-cut qualification timings.
“I felt sad and disappointed. Self-isolating alone in my apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina where both my room-mates left, and I was looking for a way out to make it back to Egypt.
“I haven’t been practicing for a week as they closed all the pools and gyms here. I’ve been doing nothing,” Akram said. “The situation was awful in the US as the number of patients with Covid-19 were increasing rapidly and I was not able to talk to my mother or see her. Also after the postponement of the Olympics I was desperately in need of going back to Egypt as soon as possible and I really thank President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and all who were eager and helped to take us back home.”
Akram, who was in quarantine at the time of the interview, added that they were being well treated in Marsa Alam and that people were trying their best to make them feel happy and safe. They are being checked twice a day and he is trying to do his best to keep fit until he returns home. “I was training a little bit, doing some exercises and thinking about my future plans,” Akram told the press.
Also in quarantine is Sara Essam, the first Egyptian woman footballer to play professionally in Stock City. Nicknamed the “The Egyptian Queen” and the female version of Mohamed Salah, Essam’s hard work began to pay off a year after the move to the UK. She was named the 2018 Arab Woman of the Year awarded by the London Arabia Organisation.
Essam is loved by her colleagues and teammates but she felt she needed to leave England to join her family in Egypt while Covid-19 was spreading widely in the UK.
While in quarantine, she celebrated her 21st birthday. “I wasn’t expecting anything on that day since I was isolated in my hotel room. I thought I’d celebrate it with the family when all this is over, especially since they sent me some birthday cards. However, I heard a knock on my door and when I opened, I saw a group of employees with a cake in the shape of a football pitch. There was also training equipment as a present. I was so happy that I don’t think I’ll ever forget that experience,” Essam said in a video she posted on social media.
Because flights are suspended in Egypt, emergency planes are being used to bring back stranded Egyptians. Osman, Akram and Essam were aided in their return by Egyptian ministers of immigration and Expatriates Affairs and Youth and Sports, Nabila Makram Ebeid and Ashraf Sobhi respectively, in addition to Egyptian Swimming federation president Yasser Edris.
On the other hand, several athletes launched initiatives to help workers who do not have a set salary. Badminton players, headed by star player Hadia Hosni, will provide 40 families of badminton workers a fund of LE1,000, LE1,500 and LE2,000 according to their situation. The money will continue coming for three months. “We have challenged other sports to be pioneers and help our beloved workers as they have been giving a helping hand to us for years,” Hosni said in a video posted on Facebook.
Hosni, together with Mohamed Gad, a taekwondo professional and ex-board member of the Egyptian Taekwondo Federation, plus a marketing professional at the Egyptian Modern Pentathlon Federation, helped in a campaign with Sonaa El-Kheir (Good Doers). “We have been able to raise money for 265 Ramadan cartons to workers who help us all through the year in addition to a bag full of needed hygiene material to fight Covid-19,” Gad said.
Hosni, together with her badminton teammates, will also provide at least 20 pieces each of their summer clothing to help unemployed workers at stadiums in different parts of Egypt.
Egyptian taekwondo national team coach Ahmed Khedr came up with the idea of a challenge contest in poomsae - a defined pattern of defense-and-attack motions - in taekwondo. Khedr opened registration online for players from all over the world to perform their poomsae at home and send a video of their performance on two cameras to be assessed. To his surprise, players from 15 countries, including Denmark, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates registered online and started sending videos
Mohamed Shaaban Abdel-Qader, head of the competitions committee at the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF), backed Khedr’s idea and to his surprise, experts from almost every continent started to volunteer to judge the players performance.
The athletes were categorised into seniors, juniors and cadets and those with the highest scores of evaluation will proceed to the semis and the finals. “Egyptians have always been pioneers in different fields and the world nowadays is thinking of holding online contests in various sports to encourage their players to train hard and have hope and cheer them up during their lockdown,” explained Gad. He added that some federations were thinking of holding regional and continental competitions online because of the pandemic.
The Weekly also spoke with Ahmed El-Guindi, the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games gold medalist in the Modern Pentathlon and winner of two gold medals at the Senior Pentathlon World Cup in Cairo earlier this year.
The 19-year-old pentathlete was also named Best Junior Athlete 2019 by the international governing body of the modern pentathlon, the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), for the second time in a row.
After qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, El-Guindi spoke about his daily routine during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since we stopped training a month ago, I started to think of a way out to keep fit after all sports facilities were shut in Egypt and all over the world. Since I live in Madinaty compound, which is spacious and far from the city centre, I run for 45 minutes on a daily basis, 10 kilometres a day
“I have nothing to do except keep fit, guided by my coach, Abdel-Rahman Eissa. I do a lot of exercises and luckily enough I have my brother who is younger and is a pentathlete as well so we do a lot of fencing together. The most difficult part is swimming so I swim in our villa’s pool as much as I can.”
El-Guindi added that he was happy after the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. “It is my first time to compete in the Olympics. I was going to be the youngest athlete in the Games, so this delay will give me more time to train and be better prepared to win a medal which is my dream.”
After the Olympics’ postponement, El-Guindi registered in his engineering course at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology. “I postponed my studies for the Olympics but since they have been postponed I registered again to complete my courses online during the lockdown instead of losing the whole thing. The dean and the professors have always been helpful during my competitions which I really appreciate.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly