A group of young women are warming up to begin their taekwondo practice at Nady al-Seid, where 23-year-old Hedaya Malak, who clinched a bronze in Rio this summer and became the first Egyptian woman to claim an Olympic medal in the sport, trained for the past 11 years.
Cars pull up to the main gate of Nady al-Seid (Shooting Club) in Cairo’s busy Dokki neighborhood, streaming past a large billboard leaning against the fence showing a smiling Malak with her bronze medal, which was hastily put up in the days following her win. Beneath the image it says, ”The pride of Egypt and Nady al-Seid.”
“I want to be like Hedaya,” exclaims 13-year-old Laila Abdel Rahman, whose father was also a taekwondo champion and who’s been training at the club since she was seven years old.
Rahman trains at the club three times a week, as well as training at home, preparing for the next championship in the hope that she might qualify for the national team and go on to take part in the 2020 Olympics.
Two of the three medals awarded to Egypt at the Rio Olympics were won by women, although 83 male athletes participated, compared to just 37 female athletes. In addition to Malak’s bronze medal for taekwondo, Sara Ahmed also clinched the bronze in weightlifting. Also, five out of the eight medals Egypt has been awarded so far at the Rio Paralympics were won by women, and they were all in powerlifting.
Both Malak and Ahmed have been the subject of praise on social media, not only for their athletic accomplishments, but for breaking social stigma when it comes to women and sports in Egypt.
“Awareness for young women in sports is increasing and participation levels are also increasing,” says Sherif Amin, a former athlete on Egypt’s national swimming team and co-founder of sports management firm S-Team.
Amin is unsure whether investment in female athletes began before or after they started gaining success.
Members of Egypt’s junior handball team argue that it was only after they started getting results that their training became more rigorous, they were given the opportunity to take part in more world championships, and they started receiving more funding.
Theirs was the first female team to qualify for the World Cup after coming in third place at the African Championship in 2015.
Team member Habiba Walid says that after they returned from the World Cup, their training coach shifted his methods, introducing types of practices they had never done before and training for championships a few months in advance, rather than at the last minute.
“Our whole lives we had wanted them to show this type of interest in us,” she says.
Yara Shehata, also on the team, says that even though the men’s team still receives more funding and media attention, their team is still better off than some of their older counterparts.
“Older women’s teams are envious because of how much focus we have had compared to them,” says Shehata.
Egyptian women’s wins in Rio this summer gave 19-year-old taekwondo competitor Noura Tarek a boost in a longstanding conflict with her father about doing sports as a woman.
Tarek, who has brothers but no sisters, says her father has been against her practicing taekwondo for the 11 years she has been training. She entered her first taekwondo championship at just nine years old, after being encouraged by her mother to take up the sport.
Now with 25 medals under her belt, Tarek describes how her father often tries to prevent her from leaving the house to take part in competitions and makes comments about her body becoming too muscular.
Pressure comes from Tarek’s friends as well. She says they would often discourage her from training three times a week, which led her to skip some of her training and focus on her university studies in dentistry.
But the 2016 Olympics gave her a jolt. “Ever since Malak won that medal, I’ve been looking ahead,” she says, adding that she is now refocused on her goal to become a member of the national team.
Tarek has gone back to attending practice regularly, which can be six times a week when preparing for a championship. “It’s my friend’s birthday tonight and I’m not there,” she jokes as she prepares to spar against her practice partner.
Khaled Fawzy, head of taekwondo at Nady al-Seid, explains that whenever a medal in a major championship is won in a particular sport, people wanting to train in that sport increase over the next 10 years. He expects young women to start applying to taekwondo and weightlifting more in the coming period.
Taekwondo is generally offered at private sports clubs or centers, but the training facility at Nady al-Seid is one of the most prominent in Egypt and the club itself sent 11 athletes in total to the Olympics this year. Nady el-Seid was also home to the first Arab, African female to be inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame in 2013, Caroline Maher.
Fawzy believes that when there’s public interest in a sport, people tend to do well in it.
Amin of S-Team, which invests in young athletes, says it’s important for the younger generation of female athletes to have people to look up to.
He points to swimming champion Rania Elwany, who represented Egypt in three Olympic Games in 1992, 1996 and 2000, explaining that it took Egypt 15 years to produce another swimming champion. The fact that 21-year-old Farida Osman earned Egypt its first medal at the World Junior Swimming Championship in 2011 should be seen in light of Elwany’s earlier achievements, he says.
Female athletes face multiple social pressures, Amin says, pointing out that Egyptian weightlifter Abeer Abdel Rahman, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2012, is now married and retired at the age of 21. Amin fears the same future for this year’s champions Ahmed and Malak.
Taekwondo player Tarek, who has been facing up to her father more and more, says her friends often ask how she expects to continue practicing after she gets married.
Amin is critical of the lack of awareness of sports as a full-time career in Egypt, for both men and women, and the absence of a proper system that allows young athletes to make a sport their career.
Young women athletes in particular often don’t believe they can pursue sports as a profession. “We have no one for them to look up to, nothing to build on,” says Amin.
But he does believe that future generations to follow Ahmed and Malak can look to them for inspiration. He predicts that 20 to 30 champions can be created based on their success. An increased focus on young women in sports could also mean second chances for other female athletes.
Nineteen-year-old gymnast Ashrakat Ismail took part in the 2014 Youth Olympics in China, coming in 12th place. She says that in Egypt there’s little awareness about gymnastics as a serious sport, while there is focus on more male-driven sports.
After watching this year’s Olympics and seeing the media focus shift more toward women, Ismail has already started training for the 2020 Olympics. Ismail is fresh off her first-place win at the 2016 African Championship earlier this month, and is preparing for what’s possibly her last chance to take part in the Olympics, due to her age.
“They should focus on female athletes because they have more potential to become just as good as the rest of the world champions,” says Ismail, arguing that female athletes in Egypt are closer to international standards than their male counterparts.
Ismail’s coach Farida Amin, who trains Egypt’s national gymnastics team, says male coaches are often wary of coaching young women, worried that they will not be serious enough. But she thinks that, based on her experience of coaching both men and women, “young women starting at the age of 18 are more goal-driven, motivated and keen to prove themselves.”
She adds that two young women on her team are studying sports education so they can make sports their full-time career beyond competing as an athlete.
Amin recalls watching the Olympics with her team and witnessing weightlifter Ahmed score the first medal for Egypt. “The girls were very excited,” says Amin. “It encouraged them to see that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish this.”