I was never an athlete or sports expert, but sports intrigued me as a model of human competition and social concepts, just like music, theatre and literature, which hold international human qualities irrespective of gender, colour, religion, ethnicity, creed or anything else that distinguishes one human being from another.
Over time, the world has attempted to organise itself through the UN on issues like the environment, human rights, banning nuclear weapons, achieving social justice, eliminating poverty or disease, but all of these were short-lived. The Olympic Games, however, have stayed the same: hosted at one city after another around the world for the second consecutive century.
If memory does not betray me, the Rome Olympics in 1960 attracted me to this universal gathering where athletes from all over the world come together, representing a plethora of civilisations and cultures.
At the time I was dismayed that Egypt had only won one bronze medal in boxing, which planted the first seeds of doubt in my mind about the great achievements of the Nasserist regime. If we were truly as accomplished as the immortal leader claimed, how is it that no one on our team could “harvest” gold and silver medals like other nations?
At the time, I didn't know that the disappointment was far worse in later rounds. Egypt would not win another medal until, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, we won a silver medal in judo, a sport that was not particularly well-known among the majority of Egyptians.
After that, Egypt once again was unable to win any medals for two decades until the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens where it earned five medals all at once, including a single gold. But apparently this was sheer coincidence, because in Beijing 2008 Egypt once again only managed to win one solitary bronze medal – the same as nearly five decades earlier.
I always tried to offset Egypt’s disappointing performance by taking pride in Arab accomplishments from Maghreb and Gulf states, when some Arab men and women began to win gold medals in track events. But that was not enough to abate my anguish, because our victories were not proportionate to our size, and perhaps also because I had matured and found more reasons for my chronic disappointment in Egyptian and Arab sports. The decline or infrequency of Arab distinction in sports was no different than our poor performance in anything related to world or human issues.
After the UNDP published the Arab Human Development report at the beginning of this century, with its discussion of the “impotence” of Arab democracy, gender equality, human rights in general, and even the quality of life, it became apparent why our sports achievements were so paltry.
While Arab states became more wealthy and perhaps achieved better figures for literacy, healthcare and quality of life, still “impotence” remained in those universal realms where humans have equal opportunity to be faster, better and finer and reach the top without discrimination.
The problem was partly because we did not believe we could be at the forefront of the world at any given moment – although every morning we swear that Arab Islamic civilisation ruled the world for at least four centuries and, thus, played a role in contemporary world civilisation.
But after that we did not contribute much. Egyptian squash champion Ahmed Barada – who was once the world’s second best – summarised the matter well when asked when he would become the world’s number one squash player.
“When I believe in my heart that I can become number one,” he answered. He never made it to the top spot, and instead I believe he dabbled in cinema – although he had much better luck on the squash court.
Do we have enough ambition and desire inside ourselves to deliver such a lofty accomplishment to all of humanity, whether at the Olympics or elsewhere? Our hearts fluttered briefly when the Arab Spring arrived led by fresh young Arab faces demanding freedom and dignity – which is a universal language – and social justice – which is the goal of all humanity.
For a brief moment, it seemed as if the citizens of Arab Spring states had suddenly crossed over into the 21st century, not because they were using Facebook but because they adopted and exercised a noble human value.
Shortly after that, however, it became apparent from Atfeeh to Dahshur that envy, hatred and discrimination have deeper roots than anticipated. Eighteen months after the revolution in Egypt, the struggle between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood makes one wonder where the youth of the revolution - “the blossoms that bloomed in Egypt’s gardens” – have gone.
In plush Tunisia, the Salafists have even attacked their compatriots in the south to impose a way of life that is alien to the country – with the arrival of democracy, safety and security has vanished. In Libya and in Yemen, it was more deadly; in Syria, the dilemma is not about the vicious dictatorship, but divisions and discrimination in the ranks of the revolution that do not augur well for the future.
Did we move too far away from the London Olympics? I don’t think so, because the core of the matter is not about being at the Olympics just to watch athletic competition, but more importantly to observe the competition of civilisations.
I draw your attention to the opening ceremony in Beijing in 2008 and the one in London this year, as well as the ones that preceded them in the other host cities. They represent all that is human – whether the legendary “bird’s nest” or scenes from British life, however close and embracing, they showcase general human values around the globe.
The common denominator is not varying expressions of the same fact, but the immense organisation not to the minute or second but “femtosecond” as some observers said with exaggeration. But that is another world about which we know nothing.