Egyptian weightlifter Sara Samir raises the bar for women

The exploits of Sara Samir, known in competitions as Sara Ahmed, 20, has boosted female participation in Egyptian weightlifting championships. (AFP)
Updated 11 May 2018
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Egyptian weightlifter Sara Samir raises the bar for women

  • She became the first Egyptian Olympian to be presented with a medal on the podium
  • Number of girls competing seriously in weightlifting has surged nearly tenfold

Her sinews stretched above the neckline of a long-sleeved training top, 20-year-old Egyptian Sara Samir propels a barbell carrying more than 90 kilos above her head, before the weights smash back to earth.
Even before this impressive lift, it’s clear Samir has a commanding presence in the national team’s weightlifting hall in Cairo.
She has become something of a trendsetter since winning bronze in the 69kg class at the 2016 Olympic Games — the first female Egyptian Olympian to be presented with a medal on the podium.
“After I won the medal in Rio, girls started weightlifting in a big way in Ismailiya,” she said with a beaming smile, referring to her home province.
But it wasn’t always like that for Samir, who competes under the name “Sara Ahmed.”
“People would tell me things like ‘Oh, you weightlift? Can you carry me?’” she said of her experience aged 11, when she first began training.
On the back of her Olympic success, the number of girls competing seriously in weightlifting has surged nearly tenfold.
“Female participants in weightlifting championships were no more than 30 or 40 girls,” said Mohamed Eldib, head coach of the national weightlifting team, after he supervised Samir and her peers in the southern Cairo district of Maadi.
Now more than 300 girls are registered with the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation, he said.
“Winning forms a strong motivation for female athletes ... and gives hope in the possibility of accomplishing wins, whatever the difficulties,” sports analyst Mohamed Seif told AFP.
The challenges include a “lack of interest of the family which cares first about the boy” since girls are expected to stop practicing sport when they get married, Seif said.
Girls are encouraged to take part in other sports such as swimming or gymnastics, he said, rather than weightlifting or athletics.
Before Samir’s bronze, Egypt had not won a single weightlifting medal since 1948 — a drought of nearly 70 years.
Her triumph was followed the same day by another bronze won by male weightlifter Mohamed Mahmoud.
Samir is completely absorbed by her training. “Her whole mind is weightlifting,” said her coach proudly.
She has also benefited from supportive parents — as a girl, it was Samir’s father who accepted her wish to start weightlifting and took her to training.
Months later, she won a gold medal in Egypt’s national championships in the under-14 age group. At just 13, she joined the national team.
But Samir is not the only Egyptian woman to have made it big on the world weightlifting stage.
Years after competing, compatriot Abeer Abdelrahman is due to be handed Olympic medals retroactively, after podium winners were stripped of their medals due to testing positive for doping.
Abdelrahman had originally come fifth in both the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2012 Olympics in London.
In 2016, she was informed she had won a silver medal in London, and a few months later that she would be awarded a bronze medal for Beijing.
And last year, Shaimaa Khalaf, 26, won silver and bronze at the US World Championships in the +90kg weight category.
But despite such major successes, weightlifting and other sports are not the government’s top priority — a spot reserved for football in Egypt.
“The state usually reacts at the moment of the accomplishment ... and then as time passes we forget and focus on football,” said Seif.
Eldib said that while state funding covers the national team’s needs, the lack of funding for gyms limits potential champions because many people do not have access to weightlifting training.
All of Samir’s medals since she began competing — more than 50, she said — are gold, except for two bronze, including the Rio Olympic medal.
Her secret?
“It all depends on how much you want to achieve,” she said, echoing her coach Eldib, who believes girls “have higher levels of tolerance in training than boys.”


Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

Updated 21 March 2019
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Bert Van Marwijk only has one thing on his mind: getting the UAE to the 2022 World Cup

  • Former Saudi Arabia coach wants to guide the Whites to their first World Cup since 1990.
  • "If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here," Dutchman says of his new job.

LONDON: Bert van Marwijk has told the UAE he only has one thing on his mind: Getting the side to the 2022 World Cup. 

The former Saudi Arabia boss was unveiled as the new coach of the Whites before watching his new team beat his former team 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai (see right). While he was in the stand rather than the dugout — interim boss Saleem Abdelrahman took charge — he would have liked what he saw as he set himself the challenge of leading the UAE to their first showpiece since 1990. 

“I’m here for only one thing, and that’s to qualify for the World Cup,” the Dutchman said.  

“It takes a long time and the first thing we have to deal with is the first qualification round. That’s why I’m here.”

Van Marwijk was celebrated after he led the Green Falcons to last year's World Cup before calling it quits. (AFP) 

Van Marwijk guided Saudi Arabia to last year’s World Cup — the Green Falcons’ first appearance at the showpiece for 12 years — during a two-year stint which ended in September 2017.

That was one of the key reasons the UAE fought hard for the 66-year-old and while it is never easy getting through Asian qualifying — 46 teams going for just four direct slots at Qatar 2022 — the Dutchman claimed his experience, combined with his knowledge of the UAE, will stand him in good stead. 

“The Saudis and the UAE are about the same level. With the Saudis we qualified for Russia, so we will do really everything to go to Qatar in 2022,” Van Marwijk said. 

While he is fondly remembered in the Kingdom — only a contractual dispute regarding backroom staff meant he did not stay on as Green Falcons coach for the Russia tournament — it is his time as the Netherlands coach that really stands out on his managerial resume. Van Marwijk coached the Oranje to within minutes of the World Cup trophy, with only an Andres Iniesta extra-time winner preventing him from tasting ultimate glory against Spain in 2010. 

So why did he return to the Gulf for another crack at World Cup qualification in a tough, crowded race? 

“One of the reasons is the feeling. I have to have the right feeling when I sign a contract,” Van Marwijk said. “We analyzed the UAE, we played four times against each other with Saudi, so I can see the potential.

“I have had the experience to go to the World Cup twice. The first time we were second in the world, the second time was with Australia (which he coached last summer) and we were a little bit unlucky — we played very well. 

“So to go to the World Cup for the third time is the goal.”

Van Marwijk is all too aware his task will be difficult. The “Golden Generation” of Emirati footballers, spearheaded by Omar Abdulrahman, tried and failed to make it to football’s biggest tournament, and a lot of the next three years’ work will likely depend on a new generation.

“I heard there were some young talents, so I’m anxious to know how good they are,” the Dutchman said. “I know the team has a few very good players — the UAE has a few weapons. 

“That’s the most important thing. If I didn’t see the potential, I wouldn’t sit here.”