Sports Talk: Our greatest swimmer deserved better

Alaa Abdel-Ghani
5 Min Read

The passing away of Abdel-Latif Abu Heif did not elicit the kind of response from the media or the public that an icon should be accorded. The death of the greatest swimmer — actually the greatest athlete — Egypt has ever produced was given such scant attention that if you blinked you missed the news. Abu Heif died peacefully in the Armed Forced Hospital in Maadi on Monday at 79, leaving behind a legacy most likely never to be emulated. From 1951-1975 Abu Heif ruled the waves like no other human, or some fish. He was the first man to cross the English Channel three times, the first time in 1951 at age 22, the youngest to do so at the time. Crossing the Channel was much talked about in the 1950s and his 1953 crossing set a world record of 13:45 hours. His conquering of the Channel attracted a group of US scientists to Cairo who extracted a drop of Abu Heif’s blood to try to fathom how he could last 14 hours in 10 C waters as he plied the 41-kilometre distance between Dover and Calais. If they’re not already listed in Believe it or Not, Abu Heif’s exploits should be. In 1965, in the Montreal race of 30 hours duration in which relay teams took turns, each member swimming one hour, Abu Heif’s Italian partner went straight to hospital after swimming for just a half hour. Abu Heif continued solo and came first. In Argentina in 1975 in the Rosario championship he swam 250 kilometers in 60 hours, a feat never accomplished before or after. For his achievements, in 1963 he was voted the best swimmer in history by the International Professionals Long-Distance Swimming Federation and the US Swimming Higher Council. In May 2001 Abu Heif was unanimously named the long-distance swimmer of the century by the International Swimming Federation. He was also named world swimming champion five times. I had the honor of meeting Abu Heif, albeit fleetingly, in October last year.

He had come to pay his last respects to my father-in-law, Sedik Lemay, a star footballer for Ahly in the 1960s. His frailty obvious, Abu Heif had come to the funeral shortly before a doctor’s appointment for what I guessed was another of those endless checkups. He did not sit down with us, just shook hands with the immediate family members, introduced himself as Abdel-Latif Abu Heif (who needs no introduction), then left by car driven by what looked like a chauffeur even though Abu Heif sat in the front seat. His humility was rare, as was his benevolence. He gave his English Channel prize of £1,000, a fortune then, to the seven children of a British swimmer who drowned in 1954 attempting to cross the Channel. He also gave the money he won in Nantes to a French swimmer who had become paralyzed.

He donated prize money from an international race to the family of an Egyptian swimmer who had drowned. In one website dedicated to illustrious Egyptians, Abu Heif is in the company of — or is it the other way around — Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Naguib Mahfouz, Ahmed Zuweil, Boutros Ghali, Mohamed Baradei, Dalida, Omar Sherif, Sayed Darwish, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Um Kulthoum, Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, Mohamed Ali, Magdi Yacoub and Mohamed El-Fayed. He is the only athlete mentioned. Had he been American, Abu Heif would have vied with Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis for the title of the best athlete in history. That he achieved worldwide acclaim without a US or other Western passport is testimony to his greatness. And yet for all this, Abu Heif’s death was forgotten by the next day, his exploits probably too far back to generate popular notice. But he deserved much more. These days, any fifth rate footballer playing on a 10th rate club is feted wherever he goes, and so-called superstars are a dime a dozen. But only a handful truly deserve the attention and can be called the real McCoy. END

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