The wave of revolutions that toppled governments from Tunisia to Yemen changed the lives of many London Olympians—for better and worse
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
AS THE fastest sprinter in Egypt's history, Amr Seoud is accustomed to getting places first. But this was different. Seoud was among the initial wave to arrive at Tahrir Square in Cairo on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011. At first he saw scattered groups of people hanging out "like they were on vacation," Seoud says. But they were there with a purpose. A month earlier in Tunisia, 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire and died after being harassed by police and having some of his wares confiscated. The resulting protests in Tunisia against police corruption and political authoritarianism brought down president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In what soon would be known as the Arab Spring, a tsunami of political uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East from Morocco to Oman, Tunisia's government was the first to fall. Egypt's would be the second.
January 25 was National Police Day in Egypt. Tens of thousands of Egyptians had already joined a Facebook page calling for a protest of police abuses and three decades of "emergency" laws that had allowed indefinite detention without trial. Seoud also had a personal reason to attend.
In 2006 he had been pulled over in Cairo by police who wanted to search him and his girlfriend. One officer pushed Seoud, setting off a fistfight. (A coach helped Seoud avoid arrest.) "That's how it was," Seoud says. "You'd get in trouble for no reason, so I hated the police."
By the night of the 25th, as police descended on Tahrir Square, activists streamed in. Many had been called to action by "ultras," groups of Egyptian soccer fans. By midnight 100,000 people were in and around the square. In the wee hours of Wednesday the 26th, police opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades.
On Friday, as riots spread through Egypt, Seoud retreated back to his neighborhood, where residents had set up a 24-hour watch to protect them from government retaliation. That night, Seoud was lying on the hood of a parked car talking to a neighbor when bullets sprayed from a passing ambulance. Seoud was unharmed, but "that guy right next to me, he died right away," he says. Other neighbors blocked the ambulance and killed the two police and two government loyalists who were inside.
Over the next two weeks more than 800 Egyptians died in clashes between protestors and police, and thousands more were injured. The fighting finally subsided on Feb. 11, when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek stepped down and the constitution was suspended.
BY DEC. 6, 2011, when athletes from 21 countries gathered for the Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya had been toppled. At the opening ceremony some of the battle scars were on display.
Mohammed al Rabti, a 33-year-old rower, led the Libyan delegation into the stadium, but he did not bear the flag. The battling in Libya had left up to 30,000 dead, and Rabti had lost his left arm while fighting the forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. And yet he beamed with pride as he strode before the red, black and green banner. That flag had replaced a Gaddafi-imposed all-green one, which mirrored the leader's political manifesto, The Green Book. "He wanted even our blood to be green," said Mohamed Lwila, an official with the Libyan delegation. Noting the restoration of the pre-Gaddafi flag, Lwila said, "We died for these colors."
For four decades Gaddafi stifled Libyan sports. The country has almost no pools, for example, because Gaddafi considered them a waste of water. According to Haffed Gritly, Libya's team doctor and delegation chief in Doha, nobody wanted to tell the dictator that pool water can be filtered and recycled. (Gritly knew the dangers of defying Gaddafi; he had helped smuggle medications to rebels, and his name was later found on Gaddafi's hit list.)
Despite its oil wealth Libya has never won an Olympic medal. The country's leading hope for London (albeit a longshot) was former African taekwondo champion Ezzideen Tlish, who competed at the 2004 and '08 Games. But Tlish, who worked as an anaesthesia technician in Tripoli, was aiding injured rebel soldiers on Aug. 28, 2011, the day they took control of the city, when he was killed by gunfire. Tlish's younger brother Mohamed won a silver medal in taewkondo at the Arab Games but, still in mourning with his family, he missed a berth in London.
DURING THE Arab Games athletes were checking Facebook and Twitter for news from home. On the evening that Iraqi sprinter Danaa Abdul-razzaq set a national record (11.88 seconds) to win the women's 100 meters, the U.S. declared an official end to the war in Iraq. By the time she took silver in the 200 four days later, sectarian violence was again flaring up in Baghdad. Still, Abdul-razzaq's training situation is better than it was four years ago, when she often had to ride through a fusillade of gunfire on the way to practice. She is Shiite and her coach, Yousif Abdul-Rahman, is Sunni. In Doha, through a translator, Abdul-razzaq said simply, "Sport brings together."
But Arab Spring pride occasionally boiled over in Doha. One of the few sports that drew crowds was swimming, and the main draw was 2008 Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle champion Oussama Mellouli, the top athlete in the Arab world. Mellouli won 15 gold medals in Doha and elicited wild cheers each time he strolled at poolside in his I [heart] FREE tunisia warmup shirt. The battle for medals between Tunisia and Egypt, however, led to shoving and shouting in the stands. By the end of the games, fans from the two countries had to use separate entrances into the swimming venue.
TO CALL most Olympic sports in the Arab world niche would be to elevate a sidewalk crack to a canyon. Building athletic tradition takes time, and when, for instance, a country has few pools, it can be difficult even to begin. Libya's best swimmer, 20-year-old butterflyer Sofyan El Gadi, will compete in London, but he trains mostly in Canada. Mellouli went to USC and is still based there. Tunisia's several outstanding fencers train primarily in France.
Pictured on these pages are only athletes who live and train primarily in the country they will represent in London. That, in itself, is no mean feat. Some athletes paid the price for staying home; in the postrevolution chaos, many sports federations struggled to continue providing even modest financial support. Hamdi Dhouibi, Tunisia's best decathlete, who stood guard with a wooden stick in front of his family's house during the revolution, lost funding and couldn't afford to keep his coach. He did not qualify for London.
These images tell—conspicuously—another story of missed opportunity. Athletic prospects for women, while plentiful in some Arab countries, such as Morocco, are scant in others. Saudi Arabia had 202 athletes in Doha, but none was a woman. Under pressure from the IOC, Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar will finally take a step forward, however symbolic, in London by sending women to the Olympics for the first time: two Saudis (an 800-meter runner and a judoka), one Bruneian (a hurdler) and four Qataris (a shooter, a sprinter, a swimmer and a table-tennis player). The Qatari shooter, Bahiya al-Hamad, 19, will carry her country's flag in the opening ceremony.
Amr Seoud was recruited by a wealthier Arab country (he won't say which) to change his citizenship and join its team, but chose to stay in Egypt even though prospective sponsors pulled back when the revolution broke out.
"It means too much to me right now to switch," says Seoud, whose cellphone wallpaper shows him in a 200-meter heat in Beijing, racing next to Usain Bolt. "I want to be part of my country's history."
Like the other Arab athletes in these photos, Seoud already is.
Egypt / Track and field
A survivor of the violent protests in Cairo (above), Seoud was a 16-year-old soccer player in 2003 when he jumped into the 100 meters at the national high school meet and beat the field—wearing heavy sneakers. He reached the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympic 200 but got so little help from Egypt's federation that he quit and began running a cellphone business. Coach Karim Abdel Wahab helped revive Seoud's career and now says the gifted sprinter "can run sub-20 seconds in the 200."
Libya / Taekwondo
Libya / Judo
Tlish (on the left) lost his brother Ezzideen a two-time taekwondo Olympian, who was killed while working with rebel medics. Elkawisah was training amid unrest in Algeria when his brother Yamen, a former judoka, was shot in the thigh in antigovernment fighting in Libya. Tlish, a 2016 hopeful, posed with first-time Olympian Elkawisah at Gaddafi's former home and main base. Tlish was hesitant to go there. "We're so used to being afraid of that place," he says.
Tunisia / Gymnastics
Bouallégue (above), 30, who is coached by his father, has won six African titles in floor exercise and competed in the Athens Games. In London he will become the first Arab or African gymnast to take part in two Olympics. For this photo taken in the resort town of Gammarth, Bouallégue posed in a ransacked home that belonged to the brother-in-law of deposed president Ben Ali. After the revolution the house became a canvas for graffiti artists, some of whom painted BOUAZIZI on the walls to honor the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation set off the Arab Spring.
Yemen / Judo
Khousrof, posed by the Gate of Yemen in the capital city, Sana'a, tried to hide from coaches his participation in antigovernment sit-ins. That became impossible in April 2011 after he was hit in the abdomen by shrapnel during a march. He couldn't rely on Yemen's Olympic committee for help, but a Yemeni judo official sent him to Jordan for treatment. Khousrof missed about seven months, but won Arab Games gold and qualified for London. "After all that's happened," he says, "it's almost unbelievable."
Pictured here in Tabarka, on the Mediterranean coast, (from left) Zied Ayet Ikram, Radhouane Chebbi, Houssine Ayari, Haikel Achouri, Haythem Ayech and Bilel Ouechtati all won medals at the 2012 African championships and will compete in London. While political turmoil has led to disorganization and hampered training opportunities for athletes in many Arab Spring countries (even his own), Tunisian coach Mohamed Ali Bouzaiene says, "We've had more training camps and gone to more tournaments than before. Minds have changed and ideas have changed."