x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Can Egypt spark a sporting revolution in the Arab world?

If sports success is a measure of a country's success in other domains, there may be better times ahead for Egypt's teams.

When Alaaeldin Abouelkassem of Egypt last week won his country's first ever Olympic fencing medal, an Egyptian friend cheekily posted on Facebook that 80 million compatriots had that day discovered the sport's existence.

The public was not always this unaware in the Arab world's most populous country. When Egypt debuted at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, they entered only one athlete, Ahmed Hassanein, a fencer.

Egypt has a history of sporting success, long before many other Arab countries had even declared independence. As well as being the first Arab nation at an Olympic Games, Egypt also participated in the second World Cup in Italy in 1934.

In 1910, the Egyptian Olympic Committee was founded in Alexandria under the patronage of Khedive Abbas II. For a while thereafter Egyptian sport flourished under a succession of monarchs.

Crucially, a prosperous society meant Egyptians excelled at individual sports like weightlifting, boxing and wrestling, especially in the 1930s. Equestrianism and fencing were also popular as expatriates set up sports and community clubs across the country.

But when political turmoil hit in the 1950s, sporting decline unsurprisingly followed. Decades of military dictatorship took their toll on the country's development in all fields. As often in such circumstances, football, with its working-class roots, survived: Al Ahly and Zamalek formed one of the world's most volatile, and enduring, local rivalries. Participation and success in other sports, however, suffered as poverty and unemployment rose. In short, people had other things to worry about than cups and medals.

In their book Why England Lose, football writer Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski used statistics to show that a country's wealth (or GDP) is directly related with sporting participation, and consequently, success. In that sense, their table strongly resembled the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy and living standards in general. "We found that a nation's well-being is directly correlated with its success in sports," the authors concluded.

In this sociopolitical context, it is obvious that most Arab societies remain highly resistant to sporting excellence. Some are mired in revolutions and unrest. Others retain a conservatism and cultural inertia that underplays the importance of sports - and indeed arts and sciences - in comparison to other disciplines. Most, including GCC countries with high GDPs, do not provide adequate funding or sporting programmes for young athletes (wealth is a vital ingredient, but not a guarantee of sporting success). Almost none provide equal opportunities for women in any employment field, never mind sport.

As London 2012 enters its final days, most Arab athletes have long departed. But many deserve credit. The mere participation of the Saudi female athletes, for one, was an achievement that transcended sport.

There were high points. Egypt's footballers, led by the magical Mohamed Aboutrika, reached the quarterfinals. The UAE's youngsters too, played heroically but ultimately managed only one point in their group. Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia won silver in the women's 3000m steeple. And Egyptian Karam Gaber, world wrestler of the year in 2004, won silver in the Greco Roman event.

All told, however, Arab performances in general were poor. Arab countries have managed an abysmal six medals so far, none gold, in London - Michael Phelps won six on his own and Jamaica managed two in less than 10 seconds on Sunday night.

With 113 competitors in 19 sports, and two silver medals, Egypt led the way for Arab nations in London. One hundred years on from Hassanein's landmark, could the events of the last year spark a new Egyptian sporting renaissance? Or even an Arab one?

For long, Arab nations have often looked to Egypt for political and cultural leadership, more so since last year's revolution. After London 2012, that burden just got heavier.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_