Egyptian squash player Mohamed el-Shorbagy was called a traitor and a sellout when he announced this month he had joined the English national team.
Yet the athlete is not the first Egyptian to compete under a foreign flag, with experts saying the choice illustrates a pervasive problem of athletes feeling underpaid and under-equipped.
“There is only football and a few team sports” that garner support, Hossam Hamed, former wrestler and coach of Egypt’s national team, told AFP.
Other athletes, particularly those in individual sports, have to deal with “obsolete regulations” and “minimal payments, even after medals and international victories”.
He says Egyptian athletes joining other national teams are “rebelling against a painful reality”.
Explaining his choice, el-Shorbagy said, “England gave me all the support I needed”, in contrast to his home country, where “no one paid him any mind” for years.
Currently world number 3, the Alexandria native is one of Egypt’s most decorated squash players, spending 50 months as the world number one in a country that consistently dominates the sport on a global level. Five of the world’s top 10 men athletes are Egyptian, in addition to el-Shorbagy, as well as the top three women athletes.
A way out of poverty
But the champion is far from the first to trade in the Egyptian flag, with a history of athletes in weightlifting, wrestling, equestrian, boxing and handball doing the same.
In 2018, after butting heads with the Egyptian Wrestling Federation, wrestler Mahmoud Fawzy joined team USA following several Arab and African gold medals.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Fares Hassouna won one of Qatar’s first gold medals in weightlifting. After social media backlash in Egypt, his father set the record straight.
Ibrahim Hassouna, himself an Egyptian weightlifting champion and former coach of the national team, explained that it was he who had left the country after his own clash with the federation, and had trained his son in Qatar since he was a child.
In both sports, says Fathi Zariq, former treasurer of the Weightlifting Federation, “athletes usually come from poor families”.
In a country where two-thirds of the population lives below or just above the poverty line, sport can be a way out.
Weightlifters and wrestlers who start training in barebones youth centres in low-income neighbourhoods, Zariq explained, “look to foreign nationalities in pursuit of money and better social status”.
“How can the reward for an Olympic gold medal be a million pounds ($54,000), after all the years of training and preparation that have gone in?”
In Egypt, where football reigns and Mohamed Salah wears the crown, other athletes are green with envy. “In football, some players earn up to a million dollars a year, without even having to win a competition,” Zariq derided.
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