x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sport can be antidote to politics

Sometimes participating against the odds is more important than just winning or losing, especially in the Gulf region.

Team players of Al Ahly club had to run for safety in Port Said, Egypt, in a game against Al Masry.
Team players of Al Ahly club had to run for safety in Port Said, Egypt, in a game against Al Masry.

On February 1, 2012, the players of Al Ahly, Egypt's most famous football club, sat in the depths of the away team dressing room in Port Said's stadium, having barely escaped with their lives.

In their arms, fans that had made the trip from Cairo to support their team were dying. In total, 74 supporters were killed after they, and the players, had been attacked by Al Masry fans.

Some were stabbed, others kicked to death. All targeted, allegedly, for their support of the Egyptian revolution.

Sports and politics should never mix. Never has this been more of a delusion than it was that day.

Politics should never be allowed to cast a shadow over sport.

Sporting glory in 2012 belongs to the usual suspects. Usain Bolt. Sebastian Vettel. Lionel Messi. Spain.

Closer to home, success is measured a little differently.

For Mohamed Aboutrika, 2012 was about redemption. After the Port Said tragedy, the distressed Al Ahly captain, one of greatest players in African history, retired from football. But then he came back.

From the depths of despair he inspired his club to win the AFC Champions League. And last week Al Ahly came within one match of reaching the Club World Cup final.

Aboutrika and his teammates had honoured the fallen 74 in the best way they possibly could. For another Egyptian hero, it was about resurrecting old traditions.

At the summer Olympics in London, the fencer Alaaeldin Abouelkassem's silver medal revived memories of a bygone age when Egypt was not dominated by military dictatorships and political unrest; when the country regularly produced champions in individual sports - which some today would call elitist - such as wrestling, equestrian and fencing.

Indeed, when Egypt became the first Arab country to take part in an Olympic Games, at Stockholm 1912, they entered only one athlete; Ahmed Hassanein, a fencer. These days, sadly, Egyptians have bigger issues to resolve.

In Tunisia, it was about changing perceptions.

The epicentre of the Arab unrest may have produced two Olympic champions, but the mixed reaction to their success highlighted the prejudices they still face at home.

Islamists called on the government to strip Habiba Ghribi off the silver medal she won in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase because of her revealing outfits.

The swimmer Oussama Mellouli, the gold medallist in the 10-kilometre marathon and bronze medallist in the 1,500m freestyle, was the target of a Facebook campaign by the extremist group Ansar Al Sharia for the crime of drinking juice before a race during Ramadan.

For one, it was about far more than just winning, or acceptance.

This year, the Palestinian international footballer Mahmoud Sarsak received a hero's welcome on his return to Gaza from Israel. He had not scored a winning goal in an important match, or even received a major award.

He was being celebrated for merely staying alive.

Sarsak, had been held in an Israeli prison without formal charges since 2009 under the administrative detention law.

A three-month hunger strike led to calls for his release by the likes of Eric Cantona, Frederic Kanoute and Noam Chomsky, as well as a major Twitter campaign demanding his freedom.

He was finally released on July 10, having lost half his body weight. Some achievements were not born out of conflict, merely an unquenchable desire for historic change.

When the Saudi Arabia judoka Wojdan Shaherkani and the runner Sarah Attar marched into the Olympic Stadium behind their countrymen at the opening ceremony, they became their nation's first female Olympic athletes.

There were no medals for Shaherkani or Attar, not even a good showing.

Yet theirs was one of the most poignant breakthroughs of the summer; a point not lost on the supportive crowd who gave Attar a standing ovation as she trailed in last in her one and only race. It was in stark contrast to the two being called "shameless" in their own country before the games.

Slowly attitudes will change.

We saw at first hand what embracing overlooked athletes can be like when in September the 15-member UAE Paralympic team returned from London to a fantastic reception, including the country's Olympic committee.

A gold, a silver and a bronze made the London games the most successful for the UAE's Paralympians, and the reaction to their performances should further raise the profile of their demographic. Excellence, and overexposure, can sometimes dull our sense of wonder to the mystery that sports still possesses, and to the power it still has to change preconceptions.

In 2012, we know who was the fastest man on two feet and the fastest on four wheels, and the greatest footballer in the world, and the best national side.

These great champions deserve acclaim. But spare a thought for the unsung heroes too, the ones whose efforts may, for once, help sports shape their societies rather than the other way round. History should judge them far more generously than does the present.