The curtain has come down on arguably the strangest Olympics in recent memory. But while the absence of fans from events in Tokyo was keenly felt by the participating athletes, it didn’t prevent at-home audiences from being captivated by the globe’s fiercest sporting competitors again.
Social media has been abuzz with coverage from the the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and there have been some incredible stories to tell. Mena athletes were at the heart of some of those tales — winning more medals for the region than ever before. LiveHealthy rounds up some of the key stories.
Raising the sportsmanship bar
In what will unquestionably go down as one of the finest examples of sportsmanship in the history of the Olympics, Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi shared high jump gold. Neither athlete could be separated after jumps of 2.37m and after being offered the chance to have a sudden death “jump-off” to decide the destination of the gold medal, both men decided instead to share their sport’s top prize.
It was the first time an athletics gold had been split at the Olympics since 1912 and the emotional embrace that followed between Barshim and Tamberi at the Japan National Stadium was beamed across the world, bringing a wave of positive publicity. The Qatari later highlighted what both athletes had gone through to get to Tokyo after overcoming serious ankle injuries.
“I literally had days when I needed help to get out of bed, to go to the toilet,” Barshim said. “This is beyond imagination for me. It is unreal. There were many dark nights and we have sacrificed so much — I know he did the same thing. This is sportsmanship and this is the message we deliver for the young generation.”
Elsewhere in track and field, Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali sensationally broke Kenya’s monopoly over the 3,000m steeplechase, which had stretched all the way back to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. El-Bakkali stormed to gold, winning his country’s only medal of the 2020 Games and first gold in 17 years. “I have been aiming for this for years and this was my opportunity to show that Morocco is capable of winning this prize in front of the Kenyans,” a delighted El-Bakkali said.
There was more North African joy as Egypt’s Ahmed Elgendy won a stunning silver in the modern pentathlon. After three events — swimming, fencing and equestrian — Elgendy was well off the pace in 13th place. But a dogged performance in the final, in which athletes run 3,200m and stop to shoot targets along the way — saw him climb to second.
Bahrain’s only medal of the Games came as Kalkidan Gezahegne won silver in the women’s 10,000m. Ethiopian-born Gezahegne impressively beat world record holder Letsenbet Gidey and was defeated only by Sifan Hassan, who cemented her place as one of the greatest athletes of all time in Tokyo with gold in the 10,000m and 5,000m, as well as bronze in the 1,500m.
Triumph for Tunisia
When 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui reached the 400m freestyle final, most felt he was there to simply make up the numbers and perhaps gain some valuable experience to take into the Paris Olympics in 2024. As the slowest qualifier, Hafnaoui was placed in the outside lane, but he preceded to throw the form book out of the window, beating more experienced competitors to take home Tunisia’s fifth-ever Olympic gold.
In an incredible finish, the teenager’s time of 3:43.36 was just six hundredths of a second faster than silver medallist Jack McLoughlin of Australia. No one looked more shocked than Hafnaoui when he realized he had won, thrashing the water in delight and admitting afterwards that it still hadn’t sunk in. “I just can’t accept that — it is too incredible,” Hafnaoui said. “It’s amazing… I’m an Olympic champion now.”
An old head on young shoulders
The youngest athlete to compete in the 2020 Olympics was Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza, who was remarkably aged just 12 years and 204 days when she took on Austrian Liu Jia. It made Zaza the fifth youngest Olympian of all time and the youngest since 1992, when Hungarian swimmer Judit Kiss (12) and Spanish rower Carlos Font (11) competed.
Zaza plays for the Al-Muhafaza Table Tennis Club in Damascus and reached the Olympics by beating 42-year-old Lebanese player Mariana Sahakian in the finals of the West Asia qualification tournament in Jordan. The Syrian’s 4-0 first-round loss to Jiua was a steep learning curve, but not entirely unexpected given her opponent was a 39-year-old veteran playing in her sixth Olympics. Liu’s first Games appearance was in 2000, a full nine years before Zaza was born.
Things are set to get even better for the Syrian wunderkind as she has been invited by the Chinese Olympic Committee to train in China with some of the world’s best table tennis talent. “I will not stop playing,” she said after her Olympic exit. “Table tennis is my whole life. It’s a really good feeling for a girl, playing sport. It makes her different, and especially if she has perseverance and determination, this makes her an outstanding human, understanding something, as sport is life.”
Age is just a number
From the youngest Mena Olympian to the oldest Mena medal winner. Kuwaiti shooter Abdullah Al-Rashidi was competing at his seventh Olympics in Tokyo and kept a cool head to claim a second successive bronze medal in the men’s skeet, at the age of 58. A popular figure in shooting because of his impassioned, fist-pumping celebrations, Al-Rashidi’s appearance in Tokyo was a family affair. His 28-year-old son Talal also represented Kuwait, in the trap shooting event.
Four years ago, Al-Rashidi Sr was forced to compete as an independent athlete when the Kuwaiti Olympic Association was banned from the Rio Games, and he memorably wore an Arsenal football shirt during his third-place finish. This time, the shooter looked visibly moved as he stood on the podium in Kuwaiti colors with a flag draped over his shoulders. “I am too happy to see my Kuwaiti flag and second Olympic medal,” Al-Rashidi said.
Another old stager was Iran’s Javad Foroughi, who became Iran’s oldest Olympic champion after winning gold in the men’s 10m air pistol. At 41, Foroughi also showed that age is no barrier to success, setting an Olympic record in the process with a superb display of marksmanship.
Karate made its debut at the Games and there was an historic gold for Feryal Abdelaziz, who became Egypt’s first-ever female Olympic champion with an outstanding victory in the Kumite +61kg. Abdelaziz began karate at the age of seven and is studying to become a pharmacist. After her victory she said: “Thank you, mom; it’s your achievement, not mine.”
There were karate bronze medals for Egypt’s Giana Farouk and Jordan’s Abdelrahman Al-Masatfa, but controversy reigned in the all-Mena final in the men’s 75kg. Saudi Arabia’s Targe Hamedi thought he had claimed the kingdom’s first-ever Olympic gold when he knocked opponent Sajad Ganjzadeh to the mat with a high kick just one minute into the final. But medics rushed to tend to the Iranian athlete and officials ruled that Hamedi’s kick was unlawful, disqualifying him and handing gold to Ganjzadeh and silver to the Saudi.
It was in combat sports that Mena athletes really excelled in Tokyo, with 15 of the region’s 29 medals coming across different combat disciplines.
Iran performed impressively in men’s wrestling, with Mohammad Reza Geraei emerging with gold in a Greco-Roman 67kg category that also saw Egypt’s Mohamed Ibrahim El-Sayed take bronze. A trio of other Iranians medalled: Iran’s Hassan Yazdani and Amir Hossein Zare won freestyle silver, while Mohammad Hadi Saravi and Amir Hossein Zare (again) took bronze.
In taekwondo there were silver medals for Jordan’s Saleh El Sharbaty (men’s 80kg) and Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi (men’s 58kg) of Tunisia, while Mena’s only individual female medals came courtesy of Israel’s Avishag Semberg (49kg) and Egypt’s Hedaya Malak (67kg), who repeated her bronze from Rio 2016. “I cannot express my feelings of happiness and joy to make my homeland and the Egyptian people happy and proud,” a beaming Malak said.
The 11-strong Israeli mixed judo team also celebrated bronze after an impressive 4-1 victory over the Russian Olympic Committee team. It was particularly sweet for Baruch Shamilov (men’s 66kg) and Shira Rishony (women’s 48kg), who had agonizingly lost individual bronze medal matches.
Gymnastic golds tumble
Israel celebrated only its second-ever Olympic gold medal after Artem Dolgopyat took a dramatic victory in artistic gymnastics, men’s floor. Dolgopyat, who moved to Israel from Ukraine as a 12-year-old, finished level on exactly 14.933 points alongside rival Rayderley Miguel Zapata from Spain. But the Israeli was ultimately awarded the gold because his routines had a higher level of difficulty.
Dolgopyat arrived back at Ben Gurion International Airport to huge crowds having been crowned a national treasure. He commented: “This is really the warmest welcome I ever got in my life. I want to cry from all the excitement, even more than the medal. I’m just kidding, but really it’s also a very fun moment.”
Six days later, Linoy Asham added to that haul, becoming the first Israeli woman to win Olympic gold after producing a major upset to win the women’s rhythmic all-round competition at the Airake Gymnastics Center. She became the first non-Russian champion of the event since 1996, holding off Russian twins Dina and Arina Averina, and Belarusian Alina Harnasko to take the crown. Asham was in disbelief afterwards, saying: “When I was young I dreamed to be in the Olympics and compete there… It’s like a dream I think, like I’m not here.”
Weight of expectation
Mutaz Barshim may be the most well-known member of Qatar’s Olympic team but it was actually weightlifter Fares El-Bakh who made history by claiming the country’s first-ever gold medal. El-Bakh only placed seventh in Rio five years ago but produced a dominant display in Tokyo to win the men’s 96kg weight category. Both his overall total of 403kg, along with his 225kg lift in the clean and jerk, were new Olympic records.
The curly-haired competitor’s father was also an Olympic weightlifter, representing Egypt in 1984, 1988 and 1992, and El-Bakh junior is grateful for his good genes and paternal support. “My dad understands me like no other,” he said. “He can deal with me on a number of different levels: he is my coach in the gym, my father at home and my friend outside the house.”
There was also weightlifting success in the form of a silver for Iran’s Ali Davoudi in the men’s 109kg, while Man Assad claimed bronze in the same category to give Syria their only Olympic medal since Nasser Al Shami took boxing bronze in 2004.
Best of the rest
Competing at the Olympics is something that should be celebrated regardless of whether athletes are chasing medals or not. Becoming an Olympian is an incredible achievement and there are numerous athletes across the Mena region who now have that honor.
For some, Olympic participation meant accomplishing personal goals. Iraqi rower Mohammed Al Khafaji reached the final stage of the men’s individual sculls, while on the track, Hanna Barakat set a new national record for Palestine in the 100m and Libyan sprinter Hadel Abdoud ran her personal best in the same event. Heat 2 of the men’s 100m saw Oman’s Barakat Al-Harthi run a season’s best and United Arab Emirates’ Mohamed Alhammadi run his fastest ever time to come first and third respectively, though neither progressed past the next round.
There were also personal bests for Algeria’s Loubna Benhadja in the 400m hurdles, Marwa Bouzayani in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase and Saudi Arabia’s 400m runner Mazen Al-Yassin, who won his first heat before narrowly being knocked out in the semifinals. National records fell for Algeria’s Yasser Triki in men’s triple jump and Tunisia’s Abdessalem Ayouni in the men’s 800m, while in the pool Yemen’s Mokhtar Al-Yamani set a new national standard in the 100m freestyle and Anastasia Gorbenko became Israel’s best ever in the 100m backstroke.
List of Mena medal winners
Feryal Abdelaziz (Egypt) – karate, women’s 61 kg
Javad Foroughi (Iran) – shooting, men’s 10m air pistol
Mohammad Reza Geraei (Iran) – wrestling – men’s Greco-Roman 67 kg
Sajjad Ganjzadeh (Iran) – karate, men’s 75 kg
Artem Dolgopyat (Israel) – artistic gymnastics, men’s floor
Linoy Ashram (Israel) – gymnastics, women’s rhythmic individual all-around
Soufiane El Bakkali (Morocco) – men’s 3,000m steeplechase
Ahmed Hafnaoui (Tunisia) – swimming, men’s 400m freestyle
Mutaz Barshim (Qatar) – men’s high jump
Fares El-Bakh (Qatar) – weightlifting, men’s 96kg
Kalkidan Gezahegne (Bahrain) – Women’s 10,000m
Ahmed Elgendy (Egypt) – Men’s Modern Pentathlon
Ali Davoudi (Iran) – Weightlifting, Men’s 109kg
Hassan Yazdani (Iran) – Wrestling, Men’s Freestyle 86kg
Saleh Elsharabaty (Jordan) – Taekwondo, Men’s 80kg
Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi (Tunisia) – Taekwondo, Men’s 58kg
Tareg Hamedi (Saudi Arabia) – Karate, Men’s 75 kg
Giana Farouk (Egypt) – karate, women’s 61kg
Seif Eissa (Egypt) – taekwondo, men’s 80kg
Mohamed Ibrahim El-Sayed (Egypt) – wrestling, men’s Greco-Roman 67kg
Hedaya Malak (Egypt) – taekwondo, women’s 67kg
Amir Hossein Zare (Iran) – wrestling, men’s freestyle 125kg
Mohammad Hadi Saravi (Iran) – wrestling, men’s Greco-Roman 97kg
Israel – mixed judo team
Avishag Semberg (Israel) – taekwondo, women’s 49kg
Abdelrahman Al-Masatfa (Jordan) – karate, men’s kumite 67kg
Abdullah Al-Rashidi (Kuwait) – shooting, men’s skeet
Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan (Qatar) – men’s beach volleyball
Man Assad (Syria) – weightlifting, men’s 109kg
Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.