Like many others in Egypt and around the world, I avidly followed the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games which ran from 23 July to 8 August 2021. The event had been originally scheduled for 2020, hence the title “Tokyo 2020”, but had to be put off on account of COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the fact that team sports invariably garner sizable public enthusiasm, individual olympic games retain the charm of being games of “the fastest, highest, strongest”, as termed by many sports critics. As such, Olympic Games will forever remain the international feast that encompasses all sports, the global banquet that gathers the human family around sublime ethics and principles far removed from the political, military, racial, or ethnic conflict that tears us apart.
In addition to the excitement of viewing the marvellous Tokyo Olympics, there was the thrill of following the Egyptian teams and individual players competing in the games. Here, the excitement was tenfold; it was not merely the unbiased pleasure of watching excellent sportsmanship, but also the moment by monument stir of following a team or player competing under the Egyptian flag. This is when nationalist sentiment superseded the pleasure of watching a masterful game, and assumed instead heated cheering for Egyptian players to win, raise high the Egyptian flag, and hear the Egyptian national anthem played.
Once the winning players came home to Egypt with their medals—Egypt won six medals: one gold, one silver, and four bronze—they were welcomed as heroes. But very quickly, harsh criticism started pouring out in the media and social media, expressing frustration at the results and condemning players and sports unions for what was seen as a poor showing at Tokyo 2020. I saw this as undue self-flagellation that warranted a stand.
No matter how humble the number of medals achieved by Egyptian players in Tokyo 2020, and despite aspirations for doing better, it is good to be reminded that the six-medal-win was the best performance ever for Egypt in the modern Olympic Games that started with Stockholm 1912.
We should understand that Egyptian sports unions did not send our players to Tokyo with insufficient training or qualification; or, as some thoughtlessly claimed, they had better not gone at all. Participation of a player in Olympics is not through mere selection, but through qualifying for the game. Every serious observer knows that this is a process which takes arduous training, and involves competing on local, national, regional, and continental levels. Only then may a player be nominated for the Olympics. I thus cheer every Egyptian player who went to Tokyo, marched in the opening parade, and competed in the games, whether or not they won. We should be understanding and proud of them, and work to prepare them for better results in Paris 2024. We should grasp and rectify the reasons behind Egypt’s lacklustre performance in Tokyo 2020.
I was impressed by an opinion piece written by sports critic Ibrahim Hegazy and printed in al-Ahram on 13 August under the title “The best, yes … the aspired, no”. Mr Hegazy masterfully analysed the Egyptian sports scene, diagnosed its problems, and recommended remedies.
“We can stand among the big winners,” Mr Hegazy wrote, “because we possess the stuff of which heroes are made; our land produces richly gifted individuals of international calibre who can compete on a world scale, and our Constitution stipulates the right of every Egyptian to play sports. Yet our sports law lacks the basic tenets needed for playing sports, making it almost impossible to spot gifted players … We need to erect a 50m x 25m court in the midst of every five buildings constructed, so that the residents would have every opportunity to play sports.
“Our first priority in the coming period should be that every girl and boy child should play sports for the sake of better physical and mental health .. for the sake of a better national body .. for the sake of a safe, coherent community .. for the sake of spotting gifted sports individuals. The number of those who play sports in Egypt is very small; no wonder gifted players are scarce.
“We must change our inferior look at any sport other than football [football is the overwhelmingly popular sport in Egypt] … also our brushing off of junior players. These juniors will grow to be the heroes of tomorrow. We must realise that the gifted players we now have are no more than 1 per cent of those we might have but who never got the opportunity to play serious sports.
“Tokyo 2020 has made it obvious that our players were not mentally prepared for the gruelling stress the competition involves. Not a few of them were very close to winning, but lost because they had had no adequate preparation to mentally withstand the near intolerable stress of making it to the top. We need to reset the training systems for our junior players; these systems focus on winning but pay no attention to the young persons’ incompletely developed nervous systems which must be trained to deal with the stress involved in competition.”
Finally, I cheer every Egyptian who competed in Tokyo 2020, and I wish Egypt better in Paris 2024 through a wider player base that makes for better national physical and mental health, and produces heroes.
20 August 2021