Every four years, many casual sports fans in Egypt tune into the Olympics and throw their passion into something other than football for a few weeks.
They passionately cheer on Egyptian athletes they know little about, placing tremendous – and often unrealistic – expectations on their shoulders, and then proceed to judge those Olympians based on incredibly high standards.
Effort is rarely put into finding background information on the athletes, or trying to understand the stories behind the success that led them to the Olympic stage.
Instead, entire careers are reduced to a single performance at the Games, removing context of what these athletes had to endure to get there, especially coming from Egypt, where federation support often ranges from minuscule to non-existent.
Social media is then the go-to platform to voice negativity and post cruel comments, which can have a serious effect on the mental health of the targeted athlete.
It’s a vicious cycle that resumed this year during the Tokyo 2020 Games and several Egyptian Olympians have chosen to speak up in the face of this online abuse.
Egypt has sent its largest ever delegation to an Olympic Games this year – 132 athletes participating in 25 sports – and has so far scooped two bronze medals in taekwondo.
It’s understandable that fans would want athletes from their nation to make the podium and it’s a given that criticism comes with the territory in professional sport. But there is a shocking level of irrational hate experienced by Olympians online and it really needs to stop.
Accountability is important but it needs to be aimed in the right direction. The majority of Egypt’s athletes competing in individual sports have managed to make it this far, often against great odds, in the absence of federation support.
Farida Osman, Egypt’s most successful swimmer in history, did not have all the sponsors she has now when she was a teenager winning gold at the World Junior Championships, or when she went to the United States to study and swim at one of the most prestigious universities, where she clocked the second-fastest 50-yard freestyle time in history as a junior at UC Berkeley.
Osman, a two-time World Championship bronze medallist in the 50m butterfly, sparked a swimming revolution in Egypt, inspiring countless others to follow in her footsteps over the past decade. Her signature event is not part of the Olympics programme and she fell short in Tokyo, unable to make it out of the heats in the 50m freestyle or 100m butterfly.
Harsh comments ridiculing her efforts popped up on social media; some describing her performances as “drowning”, others opting for a sexist theme, urging her to “get back to doing dishes in the kitchen”.
The 26-year-old sprint swimmer, who was making her third consecutive appearance at the Olympics, put up a lengthy post on her social media accounts, reflecting on her journey and urging the public not to define an athlete’s entire career by one single outing.
“During the Olympics I was off social media because I didn’t want to be distracted but I was sure that there were negative comments,” Osman told The National on Monday.
“It’s hard, not just for me, but for all athletes competing at the Olympics because we as athletes do so much behind the scenes to be at our best that no one is aware of. So the sad part is that because it’s the Olympics – I understand that it’s the biggest stage to compete at – people automatically go to that specific performance you have in the Olympics and define you by it, which shouldn’t be the case because just like any sport, we win and we lose, we learn and we grow.
“We cannot let it define us because at the end of the day, we are human and we personally wanted to perform at our best because like I said we have done so much behind the scenes that no one is aware of.”
Osman says she can take solace from the fact that she did everything to do well in Tokyo and hopes people can understand how tough it has been for athletes trying to get ready for the postponed Games during the pandemic.
“This past year has been difficult for everyone, and the pressure to perform put on athletes has increased," she said. "But it’s important to remember that the person behind the athlete struggles with the pressure to not let anyone down. I encourage all Olympians to keep their head up when they’re down, be resilient and never give up."
Fellow swimmer Abdelrahman Sameh came to her defence and posted a video on Instagram responding to former Egypt national team goalkeeper and current sports pundit Ahmed Shobeir, who had spoken negatively about Osman’s Tokyo campaign.
“I think Farida Osman’s professional success has been stronger than the success of Egypt’s entire football federation. Qualifying for the Olympics is hard to begin with,” Sameh said.
The Youth Olympics bronze medallist added in a written post: “It saddens me as an athlete representing my country to see how people view us from around the world as entertainment tools just like movies and series, they think it is all scripted and if it doesn’t go as ‘they’ planned they start hating on us like we went out there to perform at our worst on purpose. We athletes hate performing bad as much as you, the spectators, hate it if not 10 times more.”
Mohamed Safwat, who became the first ever man to represent Egypt in tennis at the Olympics, echoed Osman and Sameh’s sentiments, and is doing his best to silence the noise as he continues his pursuit of a top-100 spot in the world rankings.
“At the end of the day no one really knows what we’re going through or what is really happening,” Safwat told The National.
“I’d like to send a message that instead of passing judgment, think about the fact that everyone struggles, everyone has their own battles, whether in tennis or in normal life; I tell myself that all the time. So there is no need to pass judgment from the outside, and say, ‘you should have done this or that’. It’s easy to say so after the fact.”
With social media playing an ever present role in society, there is ample opportunity for Egyptian sports fans to follow these athletes throughout the year - and not just over the Olympics - to understand their process and gain insight into their levels of commitment and sacrifice.
The vicious cycle must be broken and it is owed to these athletes for fans to understand and appreciate their journeys, rather than solely focus on the destinations.