Young Egyptian race walkers address societal ills from dirty streets to dirty looks

The boys and girls of Cairo’s Al Jazira Walking Academy start their 5am training by cleaning and tidying the area

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It is 5am and Cairo’s streets are dark and empty, but under the 6th October Bridge, on the island of Zamalek, dozens of boys and girls are making their way to race-walking training.

First things first: they grab brooms and start sweeping, pick up trash and throw it in the bins and then water the potted plants.

For more than a year now, Al Jazira Walking Academy has cleaned and beautified the area in which they train five days a week.

“The first time we started training here, the street was full of trash, mostly paper, plastic and cans,” says the team’s head coach, Wael Abu Hamd. “Then we decided to be special. Our country’s streets shouldn’t be that dirty.”

The young walkers, ranging in age from 6 to 18, show pride in their efforts and have built a positive reputation for themselves – as well as their underappreciated sport.

Race-walking, an Olympic sport characterised by swaying hips and swinging arms, is misunderstood globally and perhaps even more so in Egypt.

“People here used to make fun of us at the beginning. They don’t know the sport and they think the way of walking is funny. They tell you ‘Don’t walk like that, be a man’,” says Ahmed Ashraf, 13. “But now everyone on the island knows us and they cheer us on.”

“This sport is not well-known in Egypt and we want to dignify it,” he says. “It’s famous in other places, like Japan.”

The team members follow their cleaning with the Fajr (dawn) prayer before warming up, stretching and then speed-walking one or two 3.5-kilometre loops.

Passing by Cairo Opera House, the Cairo Tower and three sports clubs, the older boys complete the loop in about 23 minutes.

Ahmed Ibrahim, 14, explains that one foot must be on the ground at all times, which is why race walkers drop one hip down and then the other in an exaggerated movement. He feels the effort mostly in the pelvis and the bottom of his feet.

“Race-walking needs strength and a special technique, while running is more cardiovascular,” he says.

Mr Ibrahim had heard about the sport on TV while watching the Olympics and started training a year ago. He recently placed eighth in the national championships for his age group and hopes to improve his rank.

Back at the team’s base, 16-year-old Gannah Osman is practising with sprints and drills. She says she has been training as a race walker for the past three years, starting at Al Jazira Youth Centre with coach Abu Hamd before moving to the streets.

“I hope to one day make it the national team,” she says.

Al Jazira Walking Academy makes sweeping the street part of its training. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

Ms Osman has entered various walking competitions in Egypt, including 3K and 5K. The higher distances of 10K and 20K are also offered.

Athletes are given up to four warnings if one of their feet is visibly lifted off the ground, with a 30-second penalty each time before being disqualified by judges.

When asked whether she has ever been disqualified from a race, Ms Osman says, “Run, you mean? No, never. We practise a lot, so we’re used to not running.”

The same rules apply in the Olympic Games, in which men compete in the 20K and 50K walk, while women compete in the 20K race only. At the Tokyo Olympic Games in August, the 20K male race was won by an Italian in 1:21:05, followed by two Japanese citizens.

Mr Abu Hamd says he used to be the top race-walking champion in Egypt and competed in the world race-walking championships in Russia in 2008. He finished the 20K race in 1:36:50.

The sport is also popular in Spain, Italy, Russia, Mexico and China. “There aren’t many race walking athletes in Africa,” he says. “In Egypt, we’re trying to make it more widespread.”

Al Jazira Walking Academy has grown from a handful of athletes to about 60. They train three times during the week until 6.40am, when they need to leave for school, and until 9am on the weekends.

A minibus picks up many of the children from the densely populated working-class district of Ard El Liwa at 4.40am and drops them back at home afterwards.

The team goes through a stretching routine before training. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

As the team has grown, the clean-up operation has widened to the bank of the Nile down below. Because it is well-known that the race walking team cleans the area, it tends to stay tidier than before.

“It instils good manners, because you love your country and it’s not right that your country isn’t clean,” Mr Abu Hamd says. “The kids used to throw their trash on the street, just like everyone else. Now they don’t.”

Nour Ali, a mother picking up her 16-year-old son, Mohamed Ramadan, says both the cleaning and training have taught the young athletes a sense of commitment and responsibility.

“The coaches have done an excellent job of developing them as human beings, not just as athletes,” she says.

Updated: December 18, 2021, 8:35 AM