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Mystery lingers over how Egyptian 'blind' athletes vanished to Europe

Eslam Omar , Thursday 28 Jan 2016
(Photo: Al-Ahram)

Little less than a year ago, blind Egyptian athletes were due to take part in a goalball tournament in Poland. Claims that a dozen of sighted personnel pretending to be part of a Paralympics delegation were the ones who flew to the eastern European country instead stirred controversy and prompted speculation over what exactly happened. 

The news of what local media called a “scandal” only surfaced this week, sparking outrage.

The media earlier reported that Egypt had sent a team of sighted athletes to represent the country in the 5th International Goalball Tournament in April 2015 in Suprasl, Poland, and then they went AWOL.

However, this is not exactly accurate.

The truth is that Egyptian club El-Eman was supposed to feature in this tournament but pulled out at the last minute after 16 members of its delegation could not obtain their Schengen visas in time to make it to Poland.

Twelve of those 16 members reportedly used the visas to infiltrate into Europe and then vanished into thin air.

"In goalball, we all know each other personally. We even know the players from other countries by their names but we have never heard about those twelve players before," Egyptian goalball player Mohamed 'Bayada' Sayed told Ahram Online.

Anchors and commentators have spent hours debating the matter that was even brought up in the parliament with MP Mohamed Farag Amer, chairman of Alexandria’s Smouha club, demanding the questioning of the sports minister over the headline-grabbing issue.

The Egyptian Blind Sport Association’s (EBSA) board, which was appointed this week, has launched an investigation into the matter and said it may refer the case to the "relevant authorities".

"Those athletes are not blind because some of them have technical diplomas and others are requested for military service," the association’s new vice-president Yassser Obeid told Ahram Online.

"Former EBSA Chairman Ahmed Abdallah will be implicated if it turned out that El-Eman club had registered ineligible players."

Lack of tests

The EBSA was only established in September 2014 by Abdallah to be the official body representing blind athletes under the auspices of the Egyptian Paralympics committee.

Among the 16 athletes who were supposed to participate in the tournament, some were registered through the association while the older members were registered through the Paralympics Committee.

"We don't test athletes unless they participate in an official tournament representing the association or under its supervision. We automatically register players for all authorised clubs and institutions. We tend to help the clubs to participate in friendly tournaments because it helps them in their rankings," Abdallah told Ahram Online.

"Even if some athletes have technical diplomas, this doesn't prove their eligibility. We have three classifications for the blind athletes and in the goalball. The players put on a black mask to guarantee equal opportunities. In other words, goalball is for blind athletes but also for athletes with very poor eyesight [also described as partially sighted or legally blind]," Abdallah added.

El-Eman club: Our players were eligible but we don't know where they are

El-Eman club insisted they have all the documents required to prove that they followed all legal channels but they admitted that they do not know the athletes’ whereabouts.

"Just one day before the Poland tournament, we [El-Eman club] told the EBSA, the Paralympics Committee and the Sports Ministry that we won't participate in the tournament because we hadn't received the Visas as the embassy was off for Easter weekend," the club's manager Mohamed Yousri Awad told Ahram Online.

"Consequently, the ministry reversed its decision to allow El-Eman to participate in the tournament. All those procedures were documented."

However, the athletes were granted the visas following the holidays and allegedly used them to get into Europe.

Awad denied any involvement in fraud or negligence.

"We have medical reports confirming that our players were eligible for the tournament. I also didn't give them their passports until 20 April and I made them sign documents that they won't use the visas in any illegal action," Awad added.

Awad is a renowned member of Egyptian Paralympics sports as he was part of Egypt's delegation in London 2012 that clinched 15 medals.

"Despite its poor resources, El-Eman is one of the biggest clubs for disabled athletes," he said.

"In blind sports, we are like Ahly in football. Half of the Egyptian team that won the bronze medal in Barcelona 1992 was from El-Eman club, including the new chairman Ahmed Ewein and board member Ahmed Abou-Zeid in addition to the team's captain Hussein Sayed," Awad concluded.

While the sports ministry is still investigating the case, minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz has revealed some details over the issue.

"Some of the athletes who received the visas took their passports and travelled to Europe on their own - not as part of a sport delegation. But still, we will investigate the matter since it's common that some may use such delegations to get Schengen Visas," Abdel-Aziz told an Egyptian television program Wednesday.

 (For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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