“Sport has made me stronger; I want to transmit that strength”
“Sport has changed my life. It has totally transformed it. Forever. Today I feel very different from my childhood friends, school friends and co-workers. Sport helped me to move away from the norm. It still occupies most of my life. When I look back at my athletic career, in modern pentathlon until 2013, then in fencing, I realize that nothing has been easy. My parents played a pivotal role in the early days. They showed me how it was done… They organized everything so that my brothers and I could express ourselves fully on the sports ground. But in Egypt, it’s not easy to make your way in sport, especially for girls. I come from a rural area, where access to sport is not as easy as in the big cities of Egypt. The mentality is different, more conservative. Today, the situation is changing. I would say that 70% of girls can do physical exercise, but they have to stop at a young age, unlike boys.
To achieve my goal of reaching the highest level, and participating in three Olympic Games, from Athens 2004 when I was only 14, to London 2012, the obstacles were numerous. Injuries were a big problem: back, ankle, nose … I accumulated them! Rules too. In 2008, I decided to wear a veil when competing, to obey my religion. But two years later, the International Swimming Federation banned body suits. I fought this ban. But in vain. It’s ultimately a political decision. After the Egyptian revolution subsidies for sport were cut. My coach was a foreigner, so he had to leave the country. I overcame these obstacles. I never gave up. They made me stronger. I believe that my experience demonstrates how sport can break down barriers.
Today, I want to give everything back to sport. I want to help give it a better place. In Egypt, I do not see myself as a role-model or a source of inspiration. I have no reason to think this. I live a normal life, focussing on being a mother, my training and my teaching job at the university. But I feel the responsibility to help young Egyptians, especially girls, to help them find their way in sport. To do this, I’ve become involved in sports institutions. In the London Olympics in 2012, I turned to sports governing bodies – including the IOC – in the hope of being heard in my fight against banning the veil. I didn’t find anyone. So, I decided that I had to act from the inside. Today, I chair the Athletes’ Commission of the International Modern Pentathlon Federation. I also sit on the IOC Athletes’ Commission. I was named by the president, Thomas Bach. He was sympathetic to my fight.
But institutions are not enough. I also want to act locally. My commitment to Peace and Sport, as a Champion for Peace, is part of this process. On their initiative, I went to the Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan, in the framework of the “Live together” program. I ran a fencing workshop for girls from the camp. Access to sport is forbidden for girls. They can rarely go out. The experience was incredible: we used equipment made from recycled objects. I showed them a simple and easy way to help them defend themselves. I wanted them to have fun. I saw them laugh. I absolutely want to go back there.”