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Hedaya Malak winning bronze at the Rio Olympics
Hedaya Malak winning bronze at the Rio Olympics
Passant Rabie

CAIRO — A group of young women are warming up to begin their taekwondo practice at the Nady El Seid club, where 23-year-old Hedaya Malak, whose bronze in Rio this summer was the first Olympic medal for an Egyptian woman in the sport, has trained for more than a decade.

Cars pull up to the main gate of Nady El Seid in Cairo's busy Dokki neighborhood, driving past a large billboard showing a smiling Malak with her bronze medal, which was hastily put up in the days following her win. Beneath the image, it reads, "The pride of Egypt and Nady El Seid."

"I want to be like Hedaya," says 13-year-old Laila Abdel Rahman, whose father was also a taekwondo champion. She has been training at the club since she was seven years old.

Laila trains at the club three times a week, in addition to training at home, in the hope that she might qualify for the national team and go on to take part in the 2020 Olympics.

Two of the three medals awarded to Egypt at the Rio Olympics were won by women, although 83 male athletes participated compared to just 37 female athletes. In addition to Malak's bronze medal for taekwondo, Sara Ahmed also clinched a bronze in weightlifting.

Both Malak and Ahmed have been praised on social media, not only for their athletic accomplishments but for tearing down the stigma attached to women in sports in Egypt.

"Awareness for young women in sports is increasing and participation levels are also increasing," says Sherif Amin, a former athlete on Egypt's national swimming team and co-founder of sports management firm S-Team.

Amin is unsure whether investment in female athletes began before or after they started gaining success.

Egypt's junior handball women's team members argue that it was only after they started getting results that their training became more rigorous, they were given the opportunity to participate in more world championships, and they started receiving more funding.

This handball team was the first female team in Egypt to qualify for the World Cup after coming in third place at the African Championship in 2015. After they returned from the World Cup, their training coach introduced a new type of training they had never done before. He also began their preparation for championships a few months in advance rather than at the last minute, says team member Habiba Walid.

"Our whole lives we had wanted them to show this type of interest in us," she says.

Yara Shehata, who is also on the handball team, says that even though the men's team still receives more funding and media attention, her team is still better off than before.

"Older women's teams are envious because of how much (attention) we have had compared to them," says Shehata.

Egyptian women's wins in Rio this summer gave 19-year-old taekwondo competitor Noura Tarek a boost in a longstanding conflict with her father about playing sports as a woman.

Tarek, who only has brothers, says her father has been against her practicing taekwondo for the 11 years she has been training. She entered her first taekwondo championship at the age of 9, after being encouraged by her mother to take up the sport.

Now, even with 25 medals under her belt, Tarek describes how her father tries to prevent her from leaving the house to take part in competitions and makes comments about her body becoming too muscular.

Pressure comes from Tarek's friends as well. She says they would often discourage her from training three times a week, which led her to skip some of her training and focus on her university studies in dentistry. The Rio 2016 Olympics gave her a jolt. "Ever since Malak won that medal, I've been looking ahead," she says, adding that she is now refocused on her goal to become a member of the national team.

Tarek now trains up to six times a week when preparing for a championship. "It's my friend's birthday tonight and I'm not there," she says as she prepares to fight her training partner.

Khaled Fawzy, head of taekwondo at Nady El Seid, explains that whenever a medal in a major championship is won in a particular sport, people who want to train in that sport increase over the next 10 years.

Taekwondo is generally offered at private sports clubs and centers but the training facility at Nady El Seid, which is one of the most prominent in Egypt, sent 11 athletes in total to the Olympics this year.

Amin of S-Team says it's important for the younger generation of female athletes to have people to look up to. He points to swimming champion Rania Elwany, who represented Egypt in three Olympic Games in 1992, 1996 and 2000, saying that it took Egypt 15 years to produce another swimming champion. The fact that 21-year-old Farida Osman earned Egypt its first medal at the World Junior Swimming Championship in 2011 should be seen in light of Elwany's earlier achievements, he says.

Female athletes face multiple social pressures. Amin says that Egyptian weightlifter Abeer Abdel Rahman, who won a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics, is now married and retired at the age of 21. Amin fears the same future for this year's champions, Ahmed and Malak.

Amin is critical of the absence of a system that allows young athletes to make sports their career. Young female athletes in particular often don't believe they can pursue sports as a profession. "We have no one for them to look up to, nothing to build on," says Amin. But he does believe that future generations can look to Ahmed and Malak for inspiration.

After watching this year's Olympics and seeing the media focus shift toward women, Ashrakat Ismail, a 19-year-old gymnast, started training for the 2020 Olympics.

"They should focus on female athletes because they have more potential to become just as good as the rest of the world champions," says Ismail, arguing that female athletes in Egypt are closer to international standards than their male counterparts.

Ismail's coach Farida Amin, who trains Egypt's national gymnastics team, says male coaches are often wary of coaching young women, worried that female athletes won't take their training seriously. But Amin thinks that, based on her experience of coaching both men and women, "young women starting at the age of 18 are more goal-driven, motivated and keen to prove themselves."

Amin recalls watching the Olympics with her team and seeing weightlifter Ahmed score the first medal for Egypt. "The girls were very excited," says Amin. "It encouraged them to see that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish this."

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