Entering day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Egypt’s athletes were dropping out of contention at an alarming rate, causing much consternation among the public who set social media platforms afire with stinging rebukes.
But just 15 minutes apart, Egypt celebrated two bronze medals, won in the same sport, taekwondo.
On Monday, after several Egyptian athletes had bid an early farewell to the world’s most prestigious sports event, Hedaya Malak claimed Egypt’s first medal to become the second Arab woman in history to win two Olympic medals and in a row. Weightlifter Abeer Abdel-Rahman was the first when she claimed a bronze medal in Beijing 2008 and a silver in London 2012.
The 28-year-old Malak beat USA’s Paige McPherson for the -67kg bronze medal. In the Rio 2016 Games, she had also clinched the bronze medal in the same sport, but in another weight category, -57kg.
Malak had also made history when she led the Egyptian delegation in Tokyo, carrying the Egyptian flag with fencer Alaa Al-Sayed at the team parade in the opening ceremony, becoming the first woman to hoist the Egyptian flag in the Olympic Games.
Following her victory, Malak talked to the media. “Congratulations to all Egyptians and to everyone who had supported me. It was a great competition. I am glad I did it again. Preparing and training for the Olympics was very hard and a tough journey during the past years for me and my coaches, officials and doctors. It was also a challenge because after Rio, I moved to a heavier weight category than what I was used to, almost 10kg, from -57 to -67kg. I am thrilled and grateful for the achievement. It’s a precious medal,” Malak said.
The bronze medalist then took to her social media account to thank God for her second Olympic achievement and everyone who contributed and supported her in her journey to another Olympic medal.
Also in taekwondo, just minutes after Malak’s victory, Egypt’s Seif Eissa too won a bronze in the -80kg category, as the 23-year-old beat Richard Andre Ordemann of Norway. It was also Eissa’s second Olympic medal. His first was also a bronze but at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games held in Nanjing, China.
“I am so happy with the win and the medal. It was a dream that came true. I actually didn’t expect it, though I have worked on it as a goal. I feel God rewarded me more than I deserve. I truly wanted this medal for the sake of the Egyptians who have been desperate for an Olympic medal since the beginning of the games. Millions of Egyptians have been showering Facebook praying for a medal. Thankfully, Hedaya and I were the ones to bring them joy. Now, they are happy and celebrating. We just hope that our teammates from other sports would bring more medals, hopefully gold,” Eissa told the media after receiving his bronze medal.
Both medalists received an immediate prize money of $5,000 from President of the Egyptian National Olympic Committee Hisham Hatab. Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi, who was in the stands passionately supporting the two athletes, announced that the ministry had increased the prize money of Olympic medals. Gold medalists would receive LE1 million, silver LE750,000 and bronze medalists LE500,000.
With the two bronze medals, Egypt’s taekwondo fighters raised their tally to four medals in Olympic history. The two previous medals were won by Tamer Salah in the 2004 Athens Games and by Malak in Rio 2016.
President of the Egyptian Taekwondo Federation Amr Selim opened up to Al-Ahram Weekly from Tokyo as he shared his excitement of the remarkable achievement. “Taekwondo came here not to just participate but to win and we did it. From the four athletes, two have won, Hedaya and Seif. The other two, Abdel-Rahman Wael and Nour Hussein, didn’t unfortunately because they are young and lack the experience of both Hedaya and Seif who have played at the Olympic Games before as well as in world championships, yet they fought hard and played against top-ranked athletes.
“Hedaya is a real example of the powerful, successful and respectable Egyptian woman. What she did was a historic achievement as the first Egyptian woman to not only win two Olympic medals but also to serve as a flag bearer. It was also a miracle. In 2016, she had reached her peak and then her performance and curve dropped. She gained weight and had to play in a heavier weight category, then surprised everyone with her impressive comeback and reaching her peak again. So inspiring.
“I would like to thank all those who shared in this success: the federation’s board members, officials, coaches and doctors, everyone who exerted the effort to prepare these players for their big day. The government has been so generous with all teams, provided us with all necessities and finances needed to reach such a level. We travelled abroad for competitions and training camps and it all paid off,” Selim told the Weekly.
Sherif Al-Erian, secretary-general of the Egyptian National Olympic Committee, said the two bronze medals had brought “great enjoyment and bliss to the whole delegation and raised the spirits of the athletes who have yet to compete”. On his social media account he wrote “such a great feeling to achieve two medals in one day. Go team Egypt.”
Egypt is taking part in the Tokyo Games with a whopping 134 athletes in 23 sports, the biggest in its history. The first week of the games, which conclude on 8 August, saw the Egyptians competing in football, handball, taekwondo, triathlon, shooting, swimming, fencing, badminton, table tennis, rowing, sailing, gymnastics, judo, archery and tennis.
But by Tuesday, Egyptian athletes had stumbled in most individual sports. Some suffered an early exit from the first rounds while others went as far as the quarter-finals before being eliminated. There had been no worthy result of note for the first three days of the games, triggering an angry backlash from the Egyptian public, especially on social media.
Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Erian revealed how disappointed the Egyptian contingent was with the reproach of the players which he said started from the beginning of the competition.
“Everything is going well in Tokyo. Despite the Covid-19 restrictions, the atmosphere is great here and we make sure that everyone in the delegation is following the rules in order to avoid contracting the virus and getting isolated and deported. The main focus here is for the athletes and coaches to concentrate on their competitions,” he said, adding that the delegation is, however, disappointed with the harsh criticism.
“This mood of depression and accusing the athletes and officials of being losers is unjustifiable. We have been open and frank since the beginning and stated the prospects and explained several times where the stakes and odds are. All those who have qualified for the Olympics are the pride of Egypt. They have fought hard to earn their qualifying tickets in Tokyo and even those who did not reach the finals or won medals doesn’t make them losers because it is only normal and logical considering the huge gaps in the levels of performance and world rankings among the players. Those who were called losers, the swimmers, improved their personal records, which is an achievement for them. They have all done their best. We had hopes in marksman Azmi Mehelba in shooting but he was unlucky and didn’t reach the finals.
“This means we can’t promise more medals but we are looking forward to other sports which will start in the last days of the games. We have some expectations in Abdel-Rahman Orabi in boxing and Ihab Abdel-Rahman in the javelin. Modern pentathlon, karate and wrestling are other sports in which we are also aiming high,” Al-Erian told the Weekly.
Other Arab athletes also made their mark in Tokyo after 18-year-old Tunisian sensation Ahmed Hefnawi took the pool by storm by taking the gold medal in the 400m freestyle race and his fellow countryman Mohamed Jendoubi won silver in taekwondo-57kg event, while Jordan’s Saleh Al-Sharbati claimed the silver.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.