2021 Yearender: Playing with protocols

Inas Mazhar , Friday 31 Dec 2021

Egypt handled the challenges thrown up by Covid-19 better than others.

Egyptian athletes were up to the expectations dazzling the World with their distinguished performanc
Egyptian athletes were up to the expectations dazzling the World with their distinguished performances and remarkable results

World sports’ main challenge in 2021, as the year before, was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and its Delta and more recent Omicron variants. Some countries decided to deal with reality and get back to business, considering it the “new normal”, while others had their reservations and waited and observed from afar.

Egypt took the former route, embarking on a daring adventure by hosting the World Handball Championships in January. The three-week event was the first world championship to be held in Cairo after Covid-19 broke out a year earlier and at a time when most countries were still observing strict lockdowns and sports activities were put on hold.

At the championships, Egypt hosted 32 teams, and the tournament was, as stated by many observers, a huge success, being held under strict health protocols because of Covid-19 when the bubble concept was applied for the first time.

The Handball World Championships was followed by the hosting of other world championships in fencing, gymnastics, shooting, and three modern pentathlon tournaments. They were all held in the bubble and, consequently, were incident-free.

The Egyptian experience in hosting international events as well as holding domestic competitions received positive feedback worldwide, especially in the first quarter of the year. The Egyptian initiative had, in fact, encouraged other countries to resume their sporting activities and to host major events. Egypt had taken the lead and became the example for others to follow.

However, and even though Egypt started to deliver coronavirus vaccines to its population in March, the pandemic forced most major events to reshape themselves, including the Tokyo Olympics which were delayed for one year over Covid-19 concerns. Being vaccinated became a must for athletes, coaches, technical and training staff, volunteers and organisers. Every single participant was required to take a PCR test every three days. A negative case would be isolated. The system continued by year’s end.

For the first half of the year, most events, including the Olympic Games, were held behind closed doors; fans were not allowed in. However, by summer, starting with the UEFA European Championship, full house stadiums returned in several countries, but only for the fully vaccinated. Proof in the form of a card or mobile app, a fan ID, or an accreditation card for media was needed before claiming an attendance ticket to any sports facility or event.

Egypt’s most impressive achievement of the year was winning six medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games, including one gold, the most collected by Egypt at any Olympics.

The previous Egyptian record was five medals won at the 2004 Athens Games: one gold, one silver, and three bronze.

Egypt earned three bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

In Tokyo, Egyptians participated in the 17-day event with a country-record contingent of 134 athletes who competed in 23 sports. After it was all over the Pharaohs ended in 54th place out of 86 in the table after winning a gold, a silver, and four bronze in taekwondo, wrestling, karate, and the modern pentathlon.

Egypt started slowly in Tokyo, raking in only two bronze medals in the first week, both in taekwondo, won by Seif Eissa and Hedaya Malak.

Into the second week there were no signs of any more medals forthcoming. Hopes appeared dashed until Mohamed Ibrahim, or Kisho, claimed a bronze in Graeco-Roman wrestling, followed by another bronze from Gianna Farouk in karate, which had joined the Olympics for the first time.

Egypt left the best for last when two remaining medals came with only one day to go for the Games. Ahmed Al-Gendi claimed a silver in the modern pentathlon and Feryal Ashraf snared the ultimate, the gold medal, in karate. It was Egypt’s first gold medal since wrestler Karam Gaber’s victory at Athens 2004. Before that, Egypt’s last Olympic gold medal was in 1948 in weightlifting.

Egypt could have won more medals in Tokyo as many athletes got within arm’s length of the podium, especially the men’s handball team which had made history by making it to the semi-finals, the first time the team had reached such heights. But Egypt lost to France, then lost the bronze to Spain 27-23 for a fourth-place finish.

Graeco-Roman wrestler Mohamed Mustafa came in fifth. The men’s sabre fencing team and Omar Assar in table tennis won no medals but shone, nevertheless.

Fencer Alaa Abul-Kassem, the 2012 silver medalist, was sixth in the men’s foil individual event, while teammates Mohamed Hamza and Mohamed Al-Sayed came seventh and eighth in the sabre. Two athletes and two teams finished eighth in their sport: Mustafa Amr in shot put, Abdel-Rahman Wael in taekwondo, the foil men’s team, and the football team.

In Egypt’s first participation in the gymnastics trampoline discipline, Malak Hamza secured ninth place while her teammate Asser Seif came in 10th. Diver Mohamed Mohaymen broke an Egyptian record by finishing 11th in three-metre springboard diving. While not making it among the top 12, other Egyptian athletes improved personal bests.

Egyptian athletes also had their moments at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, claiming seven Olympic medals: five silver and two bronze medals. The Egyptians ended in 64th place in the medals standings.

At the Paralympics, held from 25 August to 6 September, Egypt was making its 13th appearance. The delegation comprised 49 athletes who competed in eight sports but won medals in only powerlifting and taekwondo, six from powerlifting and one in taekwondo.

Despite not winning a medal, table tennis player Ibrahim Hamadtou proved nothing is impossible. Holding the paddle’s handle in his mouth, Hamadtou, who lost both his arms as the result of a train accident when he was 10, was the talk of the Games and stole the hearts of millions around the world, including world No 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic who posted a video of Hamadtou playing on his Instagram story. “Amazing… I am in awe of this @ibrahim hamadto.”

Apart from the Olympic Games, Egypt claimed medals in all three colours in the modern pentathlon, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, squash, tennis, karate, taekwondo, equestrian, wrestling and swimming. Egyptian athletes showed improvement by setting new personal and continental records.

Egypt remained a squash superpower, boasting almost complete dominance of the world rankings. By year’s end, seven out of the men’s top 10 players in the world were Egyptian, led by world No 1 Ali Farag. It was not that different in the women’s game with six Egyptians in the top 10, headed by Nour Al-Sherbini. Few nations have enjoyed such superiority in one sport.

Meanwhile, weightlifting returned to Egypt at the end of the year following a two-year drug ban.

Mayar Sherif, 25, finished the year at No 64 in the WTA rankings, the highest ever by an Egyptian female.

Prodigy Hana Gouda claimed a gold and a silver medal at the World Juniors Table Tennis Championship for the first time in the history of Egypt in the sport. The Ahly player won the gold in the doubles event while the silver was collected at the singles event. The 14-year-old was the youngest ever Egyptian athlete to join the Olympic delegation at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

In football, Egypt hosted the maiden African Women’s Champions League won by South Africa’s Sundowns.

Perennial powerhouse Egyptian club Ahly took third place in the FIFA Club World Cup after winning the African Champions League.

The national team qualified for January’s Africa Cup of Nations and the final face-off in the African qualifiers for next year’s World Cup.

But the year in football ended on a sour note after Egypt, which reached the semi-final of the first FIFA Arab Cup, lost to Tunisia 1-0 at the death from an own goal by its star midfielder Amr Solaiya Egypt had to settle for fourth place, cashing in on $1.5 million in prize money.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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