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Egypt's unsung Olympic heroes

CAIRO: As the Olympic Games draw ever closer, the Pharaohs are flying to Beijing to show the world what they are made of. Egypt has turned out world champions in various sports – skeet shooting, modern pentathlon and long-distance swimming. But, these national champions do not get half the attention lavished on football’s African champs. …

CAIRO: As the Olympic Games draw ever closer, the Pharaohs are flying to Beijing to show the world what they are made of.

Egypt has turned out world champions in various sports – skeet shooting, modern pentathlon and long-distance swimming. But, these national champions do not get half the attention lavished on football’s African champs.

At only 17, Azmy Mohamed Azmy is the youngest potential member of Egypt’s Olympic team. An expert marksman, in 2007 he took sixth place in the under-21 Skeet Shooting World Championship. At the Olympic qualifiers, which took place last month, Azmy and two other Egyptians took part in three heats, two in Egypt and one in Kuwait, and he is eagerly awaiting confirmation that he has made the team.

“The committee is meeting these days to see who has the best qualifications to travel to Beijing, Azmy tells Daily News Egypt.

Azmy was introduced to the sport by his father, and by the age of 13 he was third in the Arab rankings. “Sure, it needs some talent, but my father is the only reason I m in this position at all, he says.

Every one was taken by surprise when he broke the record in the last Arab Championship, hitting 121 out of 125 targets, smashing the previous record of 118 out of 125.

“That is one of the best things I have ever achieved, especially for my young age, he says.

While he’s waiting for the final decision of the committee, Azmy spends two-and-a-half hours on practice each day, putting in all the effort and concentration he can.

“If I go to the Olympics, I may not come back with a medal, but I certainly hope to qualify in the first group, in the leading 25 countries, he says.

The pentathletes

From skeet shooting to modern pentathlon – a sport in which three Egyptians, Omnia Fakhry, Aya Medany and Amr El-Geziry, are getting ready to join the Olympics.

The modern pentathlon is a sport combining five individual events: épée fencing, pistol shooting, a 200-meter freestyle swim, a show-jumping course on horseback, and a 3,000 meter cross-country run. The event was originally designed to simulate the skills required of a 19th Century soldier operating behind enemy lines.

As a junior, Amr El Geziry took first place in the world championships in 2005 and 2006. Now a senior, he currently sits in 19th position in the men’s world rankings.

He qualified to join the Olympics after winning first place in the African championships in Egypt in 2007.”You don’t have to excel at all five events, but being excellent in one and good in the others, may give you a good ranking, Geziry tells Daily News Egypt.

In 2007 Geziry broke the 200-meter free-style swimming record for modern pentathlon. He says swimming was always his route to the gold medal. “I am the number one swimmer in the game, he says.

As a medical student, he finds his athletics training really piles on the pressure. “It is hard to make it through, he says. Getting up at six o clock each morning to begin his long day, he trains for two hours before classes and three hours in the evening. “I go to bed dead as a chicken, he says smiling.

In the world in which the champions live, stress is the enemy. And these days there is more stress than they have ever known, since the Olympics are kicking in soon.

“The whole year was so stressful – first the qualifiers, then the preparation, Omnia Fakhry tells Daily News Egypt.

Omnia, 26, is the biggest in the team. She is a girl who can only be described as athletic; it is in her face, in her body and in her competitive spirit.

She raked a silver medal at the pentathlon world championships for the Egyptian women’s team in 2002, and won it again in 2006. And she is the first Egyptian woman to have won a world championship medal in the sport.

“I had only played the sport for eight months, and I went to the world championship to win the silver medal. It was a surprise for everyone, she says.

Omnia began her preparations with swimming, then took time to learn the four other events.

“It takes more than just training; it takes great will to achieve. It takes time, effort and consistency. I have good expectations for the Olympics. We are training hard, and we cannot deny that the Egyptian federation is giving us all the support we need and more.

If they had any complaints, she says, the main one was: “If any of the football teams had reached where we are, you can imagine the publicity they would get. It’s obvious that the media is not giving us our dues as world champions.

“Yes, our sport is not popular, but the media has the role of magnifying the unknown, she says.

Losing does not exist in these athletes’ dictionary. The only thing they want is to see their flag up high.

Swimming for gold

One particular champion whose smile you just cannot resist falling in love with is Mohamed El-Zanaty, the first Egyptian to win a medal at the FINA World Championships when he took bronze in Melbourne, Australia in March for the 25-km open-water event.

Named after the legendary swimmer Abd El-Latif Abou Heif – “The Nile Crocodile – El-Zanaty possesses a rare kind of will to win, swimming more than eight hours daily. He rises at four o clock each morning to tackle the tough training meted out by his strict Russian coach Boris Dubinin.

Having the perfect body for long distance swimming, he shifted at 15 years of age to distances ranging from 10 km to 88 km.

On June 28, Zanaty is heading to Portugal for a world championship. Then he travels to Canada on July 10 to begin his training camp. Finally, on Aug. 5 he finally leaves for Beijing.

“I aimed for this since childhood, Zanaty tells Daily News Egypt. “It is just tougher than I thought, since I just lost my dad. The whole thing is so stressful.

The main rivals at the Olympics will be Russia, Germany and England, he says. “We are always so close in the finish line.

A quarter of a second might just hand him the bronze medal rather than the gold. “And that’s where the endurance kicks in, he explains.

Being proud of them is one thing. Standing behind them is another, and giving them all the support is something of a duty.

“Maybe by winning the Olympics, people may just shift their interest, and see there are more sports than just football, Geziry hopes.

Topics: Aboul Fotouh

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