The decade started badly for Egyptian sports. The January 2011 uprising that upended the presidency of Hosni Mubarak led to serious political and security instability. Accordingly, sports activities were suspended throughout most of that year and for almost four years into the new decade until Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s presidency ushered in a semblance of normalcy.
With sports competitions held on and off, the sports business almost collapsed, especially media and marketing which are part of the sports industry. Sports programmes and channels shut down in the absence of their main product, sports tournaments.
Before the nationwide rebellion, Egyptian sports had had some notable successes, especially in football. The country had won the Africa Cup of Nations trophy three consecutive times from 2006 to 2010 and had an impressive participation at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, losing 4-3 to giants Brazil and beating 2006 World Cup champions Italy 1-0.
As the decade started, Egypt had reached an unprecedented ninth in the FIFA world rankings.
But, after winning three editions of the Africa Cup of Nations, the footballers failed to qualify for the next three editions, in 2012, 2013 and 2015. African qualifications, which normally came almost automatically for Egypt, quickly became a slog, a situation hard to fathom for a country that has the most African titles, with seven.
The excuse constantly given for those failures was that there were no stable football competitions in the domestic league and the FA Cup. These two major competitions were suspended after fatal incidents: the 2012 football riot in a league game in Port Said that killed 72 spectators, mostly Ahly supporters, and the 2015 tragedy of 30 June Stadium when 22 Zamalek fans lost their lives in a stampede for tickets.
Those two calamities were the reason the Egyptian football league has been played behind closed doors since then. Spectators could no longer attend the domestic league matches in any stadium in the country to support their beloved teams. On rare occasions, security would allow a limited number of spectators to attend matches, especially international games when the Pharaohs were playing against a foreign team or an Egyptian squad playing against African opposition.
Spectator attendance has naturally been a team sports issue for football, basketball, volleyball and handball. Those sports include heavyweight clubs Ahly, Zamalek, Ittihad of Alexandria and Gezira that have a huge rivalry among fans. For the past several years, security officials have been the decision makers as to crowd size to ensure a safe environment for the teams and spectators.
Despite the 2011-2014 years of unrest, Egyptians managed a few medals at two Olympic Games — the 2012 London Olympic Games and the 2014 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Nanjing, China. In London, Egypt sent one of its largest delegations ever — 110 athletes participating in 83 events across 20 sports, with more women taking part than ever before. The nation’s flag bearer in the opening ceremony was Hesham Mesbah, a judoka who was Egypt’s only medallist at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In London, Egypt claimed two silver medals by fencer Alaaeddin Abul-Kassem and Graeco Roman wrestler Karam Gaber who had picked up a gold medal in Athens 2004.
Also in London, Abeer Abdel-Rahman took silver in weightlifting while her teammate Tarek Yehia received the bronze in the men’s competition. Mustafa Mansour became the nation’s first competitor in sprint canoeing while fencer Shaimaa Al-Gammal became the first Egyptian female to appear in four editions of the Olympics.
In 2014, Egyptians won nine medals at the second YOG which was held in Nanjing, with two national firsts in swimming and women’s weightlifting. Ahmed Akram took gold in the 800m freestyle, giving Egypt its first medal in swimming at the YOG.
Sara Ahmed then claimed the gold medal in the women’s weightlifting 63kg, becoming the first woman ever to win the gold medal for Egypt in an individual sport. Mohamed Shosha won a bronze in the men’s 85kg.
The handball team claimed the silver medal and Ahmed Youssef won bronze in the hammer throw. Ahmed Ahmed claimed a bronze medal in the Graeco Roman 85kg category while Abdallah Al-Gizawi won another bronze in the freestyle 100kg category. Seif Eissa won a bronze in the men’s 73kg taekwondo event.
Following the YOG, Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports adopted a new sports law which was then approved by the parliament. The new law gave the general assemblies of all sports federations more power to elect their officials and have a say in approving or rejecting any of the federation’s actions and decisions.
Starting in 2015 the overall situation in Egypt improved noticeably, as did Egyptian sports which started breathing again. It was not only sports but the whole industry, including sports media. Sports programmes returned to television screens and new specialised sports channels were launched as Egyptian sports, including squash, karate, taekwondo and speedball started to dominate regional, continental and international championships. In the second half of the decade, Egypt successfully hosted major sports world events in squash, football, handball, basketball, volleyball and taekwondo.
In 2016 the Egyptian Olympic Committee sent its largest ever delegation to the Rio Games, with a total of 120 athletes — 83 men and 37 women — competing across 22 sports. The Egyptian roster also witnessed more women participating in the games than ever before.
The Egyptians returned home from Rio de Janeiro with three bronze medals, which matched their overall tally from the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The games marked the first time Egyptian women had made it to the Olympic podium in the nation’s 104-year history. Taekwondo fighter Hedaya Malak took bronze in the women’s 57kg, as did former youth Olympian weightlifter Sara Samir. Weightlifter Mohamed Ihab also finished third. Samir’s achievement was doubled as she became the first Arab woman to claim an Olympic medal in her sport.
In addition several Egyptian athletes reached the finals of their respective events but narrowly missed out on the podium. Among those were shooting sensation Afaf Al-Hodhod who came fifth in the women’s air pistol. Free wrestler Inas Mustafa was also fifth in the women’s 69kg. Weightlifter Shaimaa Khalaf came fourth in the women’s over 75kg, Ahmed Saad fifth in the men’s 62kg and Ragab Abdel-Hay fifth in the men’s 94kg.
The Rio Games saw the Egyptian women beach volleyball duo of Doaa Al-Ghobashi and Nada Mouawad making headlines while playing with their conservative outfits versus the bikini. They were reflecting Egypt’s diversity with Al-Ghobashi donning the hijab.
In the same games, judoka Islam Al-Shehabi was strongly criticised for refusing to shake hands with his Israeli opponent Or Sasson after losing his first round match. Al-Shehabi was summoned for a hearing by the Athletes Commission during the games for breaching judo etiquette by not shaking hands or bowing heads.
By the end of 2016, Egyptian football celebrated their return to Africa, beating Nigeria to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
In Gabon, Egypt made it to the final amid the surprise of critics, media and fans. Though they did not win the trophy, losing 2-1 to Cameroon, they did earn the respect of football observers.
By the end of that year, the Pharaohs beat Congo to qualify for the World Cup in Russia 2018. They had returned to the world’s most prestigious sports event after 28 years, the last time being Italy in 1990. But in Russia, the Pharaohs lost all three games in the first round.
Egyptian football also faltered badly in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations which the country hosted. Egypt bowed out in the round of 16, losing to South Africa 1-0. Despite the loss, Egyptians were heartened that another Arab country, Algeria, won the tournament.
The tournament saw full-house stadiums, as did the Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations which Egypt won and in the process, qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
Although Egyptians were disappointed with the football results, other athletes managed to bring back joy somewhere else in the world. In Argentina, 68 athletes took part in the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, winning 12 medals, making these games Egypt’s most successful YOG. Egypt placed 22nd out of the 93 nations. Surprisingly, Egypt had a smaller delegation compared to 2010 and 2014.
Throughout 2019 until mid-March 2020, Egyptian athletes went through qualifiers for the Olympic Games. They managed to book their tickets in many sports for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games which will now be held in the summer of 2021, postponed because of the coronavirus.
The pandemic stymied Egyptian and world sports. Events were suspended for months. When sports returned it was under strict restrictions and safety and medical precautions. Many sportsmen and women contracted the virus; most recovered.
For the better half of the decade, Egyptian squash has ruled the world in every major category. As of April 2018, Egypt boasted almost complete dominance of the world rankings, with seven out of the top 10 male players in the world and four out of the top 10 female players in the world being Egyptian.
Two women had breakout performances. Swimmer Farida Osman bagged the bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, the first ever medal won by an Egyptian in the tournament. Osman continued to add to her achievements in the pool by qualifying for the Tokyo Games.
Mayar Sherif became Egypt’s sportswomen sensation of 2020 after cruising to the main round of the French Open for the first time in the history of Egyptian tennis. Sherif improved her career ranking to 128 in the singles and 190 in the doubles and continued to amaze in championships in the USA and Spain.
As the decade is close to wrapping up, Egyptian sports is looking forward to hosting the first major sports event to be held amid the coronavirus pandemic. On 13 January, the Men’s World Handball Championship will start at the Cairo Stadium Indoor Complex with the participation of a record 32 teams.
The government met the challenge by providing the necessary medical and safety precautions required to ensure the safety of the participants. The 27th edition of the championship, to be held in four venues in three cities, will end 31 January. IOC President Thomas Bach had announced that he would be attending this major event.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly