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1972Sports in the Arab World

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The Arabs In Izmir

Written by Anne Turner Bruno
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

We took the Olympic rules, organization and discipline, and adapted them for our mini-jeux." The speaker was Lebanon's Shaikh Gabriel Gemayel, founder of what he calls the "little games"—the Mediterranean Games which, like the Olympics on which they are modeled, are held every four years, but limited to topflight athletes from the nations whose shores touch the Mediterranean Sea.

Beginning in 1951 in Alexandria, the Mediterranean Games have drawn successively larger numbers of participants to such cities as Barcelona, Tunis, Naples and Beirut. Last year alone 2,200 men and women from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East flocked to Turkey's lovely Izmir in what some observers saw as a revival in the Mediterranean of the Olympic traditions that started there. That was 2,700 years ago, when the ancient Greeks organized a race among their best runners at Olympia to honor Zeus. It was such a success that the Greeks repeated it every four years for the next 600, a custom that was retained when the modern Olympics began in 1896, in, appropriately enough, Athens.

Undoubtedly some of the athletes who competed in last fall's Mediterranean Games saw them as no more than a warmup for the Olympic Games scheduled for Munich in September. But to smaller countries they offered a chance for serious international competition, organized strictly along the lines of the senior Olympics in which some 125 countries participate, in which the same color, excitement and competitive spirit prevailed. As tall, distinguished Shaikh Gemayel likes to point out, in a relatively small field of 15, smaller countries still may not win, but they can participate without being overwhelmed.

Certainly the Arabs who took part in the Izmir games would agree. The 700 athletes from seven Arab countries—Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—represented half the countries enrolled, but accounted for only a third of the entries, and the teams they sent were by far the smallest. For example, in contrast to Spain, Italy and Turkey which each sent more than 250, Lebanon's delegation, totaled five—two athletes, two officials and a standard bearer. There were only 64 Algerians at the games and 56 Libyans. Moreover, for many of the younger participants it was their first trip abroad.

For that reason, perhaps, the Arab contingents bore themselves with noticeable pride last October 6 as more than 2,000 participants in smart blazers marched past the President of Turkey, Cevdet Sunay, in the traditional opening-day ceremonies at Izmir's huge Ataturk Stadium. It was an assemblage perfectly symbolizing the spirit of the games: a meeting of sharp contrasts gathered to share common interests.

The majority that day were typical Mediterraneans, with dark hair, dark flashing eyes, and warm, sparkling smiles, all in vivid contrast to tall blonds from France and Yugoslavia and ebony blacks from North Africa. There were Muslims, Christians and Jews. There were capitalists. There were socialists. There were neutrals. Regardless of their coloration, religious background or political persuasion, all were in Izmir to do their best, for themselves and their countries, in the sport each excelled in, whether it was basketball, boxing, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, judo, marksmanship, soccer, swimming, tennis, water polo, weight lifting, wrestling, volleyball, or yachting.

The Republic of Turkey had prepared for her guests well—especially in choosing Izmir as the site. Izmir boasts a sunny climate eight months of the year, is on the Aegean Sea and close to ski slopes on Mount Uludag, and has an impressive assortment of sports facilities: Alsancak Stadium, a sports hall and tennis courts in Cultural Park, and a soccer stadium in suburban Karsiyaka across the bay. Moreover it has an Olympic tradition. In 688 B.C. a native son of Izmir, then called Smyrna, returned to his city as winner of the Olympics' first boxing match.

To the facilities already there Turkey added about $17 million worth of construction: the brand-new, 40,000-seat Ataturk Stadium, scene of the Games' opening formalities; a sports city, which includes a 5,000-seat sports hall and an adjacent swimming pool around which 1,500 could watch the scheduled aquatic events. The government also built an Olympic Village big enough to accommodate the 2,000 men contestants. (The 200 women who competed were housed in a Near East University dormitory a few miles distant.) It was laid out as a completely self-contained community, with its own bank, post office and a restaurant-cafeteria which, one offiicial estimated when it was all over, dished up some five and a half tons of beef, nine tons of lamb and veal, and 75,000 eggs to the ravenous athletes. Built on the city's southern shoreline, the village is being used now as a student dormitory and youth hostel.

In the first test at Izmir the Arabs did well. Tall Amina Ouhibi, a shapely swimmer from Oran, Algeria, defeated all comers for the title of Princess of Olympic Village. But it was no omen. When the last score was tallied 11 days later, Italy, in a sweep of the 152 events, had 58 gold medals (a new Mediterranean Games record), Yugoslavia had 33 and Spain and Turkey each 18. By contrast the seven Arab nations together won only 10.

But if they failed to win many medals they did succeed in displaying a true Olympic spirit. In a few instances—notably Egypt in shot put, wrestling and boxing and Tunisia in football and track—the Arabs showed exceptional promise.

Egypt's boxing team, coached by stocky, personable Garib Afifi, who was a gold-medal winner at the 1951 games, won four gold medals, two silver and three bronze in the 11 championship categories in the 106- to 178-plus pound classes. Depending on speed rather than strength, Afifi's tall, thin fighters, wearing red tops and white trunks, constantly out-boxed heavier and stronger opponents, but weren't afraid to mix it up when they had to. Salah Amin, a 22-year-old army corporal from Alexandria, stood toe-to-toe with Monai Mouldi of Tunis, and finally out-punched him to win the 125-pound class gold medal. Abdelhadi Khalafallah, a sergeant in the Egyptian army, jogged around long enough to survive Turk Seyfi Tatar's ferocious right, and diminutive Abdelhamid Fouad, an aggressive 21-year-old import-export firm employee of Cairo, punched his way to the 156-pound title. Up against a wily Yugoslav, Alexandria's rangy, 23-year-old Mahmoud Ali Ahmed put him on the ropes and walked off as games champ in the 178-pound class. Tunisian boxers won one gold medal and two silver ones. Hard-hittmg, wmd-milling Ali El-Gharbi, who took first in the 112-pound category, was carried out a hero on his teammates' shoulders.

For the final night of the boxing series, an estimated 20,000 spectators at Alsancak Stadium overflowed onto the field where the brilliantly illuminated ring had been set up, and the long string of matches lasted until well past midnight. When it was all over the jubilant Egyptians carried their victors, now wearing robes of rich red satin over their trunks, off the field on their shoulders. An exhilarated Salah Amin skipped his way around the stadium, acknowledging the acclaim of the crowd while gold-medal winner Abdelhadi Khalafallah jogged around the field making a V-for-Victory salute.

Wrestling, the Turkish national sport since it was introduced 600 years ago by a sultan who wanted to toughen his troops, is another event in which Arab teams consistently showed well. In both categories—Greco-Roman, in which contenders can score only from the waist up, and the rougher, faster-moving free-style form—the Turks dominated the events. They took four gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling and first place in all 10 classes in the free style.

But the Arabs did not disgrace themselves. In the Greco-Roman 220-pound-plus, super-heavy-weight class, Egyptian Amera Lutfi, after first eliminating Syrian Dibo Yussef, nearly took Turk Omer Topuz. Although eliminated in the finals, both Lutfi and teammate Emfakafav Said walked off with silver medals, Said in the 220-pound category.

So did Moroccan Muhamed Karmaus in the 114-pound class, to the delight of Moroccan wrestling trainer Jilali Zouaki of Marrakesh, whose neophyte three-man wrestling team did surprisingly well. Zouaki, the youngest Greco-Roman wrestling coach at the Games, says that there are few wrestlers in Morocco because it's a new sport in a country where people are interested most of all in soccer. "But our wrestlers are all true amateurs," he emphasizes. "They have full time jobs." Zouaki feels that his men have little chance in the Olympic heavyweight classes against the Russians, Turks and Bulgarians so he is concentrating on training lightweights for Munich.

In the faster and more furious free-style wrestling, in which anything seems to go, two Arab behemoths, Syrian Mohammed Cuma, and Egyptian Emera Mahmud, took the silver and bronze medals in the 220-pound-plus class.

One new sport at Izmir was the judo competition. It was so popular that spectators stood 12 deep in the aisles of the Cultural Park's sports hall. Again the Italians, Yugoslavs and Turks were in command, but tall, dark-haired Ali Soumer, a 26-year mechanical engineer from Tunis, won a bronze medal in the heavyweight class. Ali showed such promise that Japanese trainer Yuji Danjo, a pleasant, 28-year-old former law student with a black belt in judo, has sent him for a year's advanced training in Tokyo in preparation for Munich.

Egypt's nine-man weight-lifting team won that nation's fifth and sixth gold medals and four more silver ones. Mustafa Abdel Halim, 28, a Cairo mechanic who has trained a half-dozen years, took first place in the 114-pound event with a three-lift hoist of 280 kilograms (616 pounds). "I was very happy to see the flag of our country go up in the winner's position," said Mustafa, who is mentioned as a possible future European champion. Super heavyweight Gaber Hafez, 25, who works in the recreational program of an Alexandrian import-export firm, gave three mighty heaves to lift a total 505 kilograms (1,111 pounds) in the 242-plus pound classification. The curly-haired giant, who also likes to swim and play soccer, has been training two hours four times weekly for tire past eight years.

Athletics, the classic heart of the original Olympics, attracted many Arab competitors for the 31 different events in running, walking, jumping and throwing. An Egyptian and a Moroccan took gold and silver medals in the shot put, but the most impressive contestants were the phenomenal runners from the Tunisian foothills, where slim shepherds are said to race desert deer 20 miles to capture them. Spectators roared themselves hoarse as 22-year-old Tunisian government transport clerk Mansour Guettaya captured two gold medals and set two new Games' records. Coming across the finish line with arms high, Guettaya won the 800-meter race in 1.47.6 minutes and the 1,500-meter in 3.46.5 minutes, defeating experienced Italian racer Francesco Arese. Almost as exciting was the effort of Olympic champ Mohammed Gammoudi, 32-year-old Tunisian Army lieutenant, to beat Spaniard Javier Alvarez in the 5,000-meter race. He lost by a bare 3.6 seconds. But his coach, 24-year-old Reginald Harris of Fresno, California, an American Peace Corps volunteer, believes that even though slender Mohammed Gammoudi is at the relatively advanced age of 32—he was not 'discovered' until 1960 when he entered the army at 21—he is "just now reaching his peak." In any case Gammoudi is still world champ in the 5,000-meter event, having taken the bronze medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the gold medal in Mexico City in 1968.

The shot put is the official emblem of the Mediterranean Games and both top spots in this event were picked off by Arab athletes. Tall, solidly packed Youssef Nagui Assaad, 26, of Egypt, a 240-pound giant, set a new personal and Games' record with a mighty 20.19-meter throw. The intelligent high school phys-ed teacher first tried the shot about five years ago. Now he trains four to five hours a day, at least five days a week, and keeps to a tight protein diet. Though Assaad hopes to compete in the coming Olympics, he worries that a good shot putter needs at least 10 years' training to develop the strength and technique of a world champion. Assaad also claimed a silver medal in the discus with a throw of 54.72 meters.

Silver medal winner of the shot put was Moroccan Lahcen Akka, a huge, handsome 29-year-old with outsized shoulders and an Afro hair style. Raised in a Berber village, Akka has spent seven years in the United States, where he first tried the shot put in 1963 and is presently working for his master's degree in physical training at San Jose State College, California.

Lebanon's single entry in athletics at last year's Games was in the decathlon—Mohamed Husein Nasser, 21. From Baalbek, site of the great Roman temples and the nation's summer cultural festival, Mohamed is one of 11 children and, like one pole-vaulting champion brother, was national high jump champ by the time he was 16. When he was graduated from the Normal School of Physical Education in Beirut in June 1971, a coach spotted Mohamed doing the high jump and pole vault, learned that he also did the other eight field and track requirements of the decathlon, and recruited him fast.

That coach—Ivan-Jean Psiakis, professor of athletics at the Normal School and also at the Lebanese National Institute for Sports—had only three months to whip Mohamed into shape for the Games. In Izmir his quick student picked up 6,704 points in the 10 events: broad jump, high jump, pole vault, discus, shot put, javelin, 100-400- and 1,500-meter races, and 110-meter hurdle. It wasn't enough to win a medal but it did set a new Lebanese record for the decathlon.

"He's a phenomenon," says Coach Psiakis. "And I have the best coach in the world," retorts Mohamed of the trainer who now works him four hours daily in body building and techniques. Psiakis hopes to take Mohamed first to Belgrade's special institute for the decathlon, later to the Athens' pole vault school in preparation for Munich. Squares-jawed Psiakis, who is 58 but looks 10 years younger, was Egypt's decathlon champ and one of the country's leading coaches from 1949 until 1956 when he moved to Lebanon. "Sports is like religion, too high for politics," says the Greek, Alexandria-born coach of two Arab lands. "If the Olympic committee could run the world, we would have no wars."

Another trainer who praises sport's social role is president of Morocco's Athletic Club Mansour Lahrizi. He feels that October's Mediterranean Games were one more visible mark of the progress of Arab women. Speaking of his five female runners and discus throwers, the elegant young coach says: "Ten years ago Moroccan young women were in the veil; today, they're in an international stadium." All of his girls came in fourth or fifth, not a bad showing for 18- and 19-year olds in their first international meet.

Not bad either was Sahar Mansour of Cairo's Higher Institute of Physical Education, a cute brunette of 20, who won both a silver medal for finishing the 100-meter butterfly stroke in 1.09.0 minutes and a bronze in the 100-meter free-style with a time of 1.04.0 minutes. Sahar took up swimming at 10, when her brother was Egypt's butterfly champion. She trains four hours daily so that, as she says hopefully, "Inshallah (If God wills it), I'll go to Munich." Sahar's male colleagues also captured three bronze medals in swimming and diving. .

Bronze medals at the games also went to a Libyan in bicycling and a Syrian in marksmanship, but long before October 17, when young Turkish hostesses in Ottoman gowns and white tulle veils presented the final medals, it was clear that the competition-honed European teams had taken most of the medals. But what the Arab representatives lacked in experience they made up in sports sportsmanship. Many of these young men and women, whether they won individual events or not, won over their fellow contestants from the northern shores of the Mediterranean by numerous acts of grace. Helping to pick up fallen rivals, giving those they were competing with a reassuring pat or embrace, forever shaking hands, they offered a good example of the spirit praised by Turkish Minister of Youth and Sports Sezai Ergun in the closing ceremonies: "We are convinced that sports are the meeting ground between peoples, that the example and activities of these athletes contribute to world peace."

Those were the last words before Shaikh Gemayel, president of the Games' executive committee, officially thanked Turkey, and the lineup of athletes broke ranks to cheer their colleagues with farewell cries of "See you in Munich," and "On to Algiers," the site already selected for the seventh Mediterranean Games in 1975.

Anne Turner Bruno, a free-lancer in Istanbul, admits that it has been a long time since she was tempted to try pole vaulting, although she does occasionally hold a fishing pole over the Bosporus. She has contributed articles to Sports Illustrated, the Reader's Digest, Venture and International Wildlife.

This article appeared on pages 36-41 of the Sports in the Arab World print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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