August 22, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6583

Politics, Sports And Religion In Arab Press Coverage Of Rio Olympics

August 22, 2016
Special Dispatch No. 6583

Twenty One Arab delegations, including one representing the Palestinian Authority but not including Kuwait, sent delegations to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. In addition, several Arab athletes competed as part of the refugee delegation that the International Olympic Committee (OIC) established this year. Naturally, the Arab athletes received wide coverage in the Arab media, but not necessarily for the reasons anticipated by the athletes and the sports authorities in their countries. Already in the games' early stages, some articles predicted that the Arabs athletes' achievements would be meagre, relative to the size of the world's Arab population, and discussed the reasons for this. Other articles, especially the Egyptian press, focused more on the political and cultural aspects of the athletes' performance than on their achievements. For example, the incident of Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby, who refused to shake the hand of Israeli judoka Or Sasson after a bout, received much attention due to its political aspects. Egyptian beach volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy, who  competed while wearing modest clothing and a hijab, also garnered attention.

Another aspect that sparked interest was various athletes' use of cupping, especially American swimmer Michael Phelps, which was presented by some in the Arab media as vindication of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings in praise of this practice.

At the close of the 2016 Olympic Games, here are excerpts from some of these articles.

Articles In Arab Press: Arabs Participate In The Olympics - As Spectators

From the start of the Olympic Games, the Arab press was harshly critical of the Arab athletes' meagre achievements. Thus, in an article in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, Muhammad Sweidan predicted that the Arab athletes would not deliver impressive performances because of improper management of financial and human resources: "It is rare for Arab athletes to win gold at the Olympic Games... and therefore the motto of the Arabs has long been 'the honor of participating is enough, and is itself an achievement.' But this motto, and this excuse, are no longer convincing to young Arabs, who see countries that do not have the means the Arabs have achieve at the Olympics what all the Arabs together cannot...

"At these Olympics too... in Brazil, we do not anticipate great achievements, and even if there are any, they will be paltry... We Arabs speak often about sports and about developing talent, but do nothing... Arabs have talent and abilities, but lack a good orientation and a way to realize goals.

"Like scientific achievements, athletic achievements too do not come easy; they require hard work, effort, persistence, and optimal use of resources and capabilities. A review of the Arab experience at the Olympics illustrates that Arabs do not make the best use of their financial resources and of their young people's athletic talent, and that there are many official Arab roadblocks preventing Arab athletes from realizing their goals and aspirations...

"Undoubtedly, at these games we will be content with the experience and be far removed from achievements, and Arab athletes will absolutely not gladden the hearts of the masses of Arabs who eagerly follow the Olympic Games. How much longer will we be satisfied with the role of spectator?"[1]

"Arab athletes in last place at the Rio Olympics" (Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, August 12, 2016)

Similarly, Basem Sakijha wrote in the Jordanian daily Al-Sabil that the well-known Arab excuse that a foreign conspiracy is denying the Arabs any achievement in many fields does not apply to sports: "We Arabs routinely use the 'foreign conspiracy theory' to justify our military, political, and economic defeats. Thus [we remain] in a deep and pleasant slumber, since we believe that we are not the cause [of our own defeats]...

"Even when we talk about Arabs getting bottom ratings for liberties, fighting corruption, economic and scientific progress, and standard of living, we justify this with the argument that these lists and this research are political and aimed at harming the Arabs' status and tarnishing their unblemished history.

"[But] now there are competitions in which our failures cannot be explained away with all these excuses. I am of course speaking of the Olympic Games, in which our only status is 'the honor of participating' and raising the flags of 21 countries, and a handful of medals, usually won by accident.

"Every four years, Arab [athletes] go to the Olympics knowing that they are mere spectators - no more, no less. In many cases, there are more administrators and media members than athletes, as if this is some tourist trip to see a new country..."[2]

Egyptian Columnists Criticize Arab Athletes' Participation In Competitions Wearing Hijab, Modest Clothing

It should be noted that although Arab athletes have won several medals in Rio, including gold, what attracted the most attention, from both Arabs and globally, was what some of the female athletes, mostly from Egypt, were wearing. For example, some athletes' modest clothing and hijab, in sports in which athletes typically wear light clothing, garnered global attention. Alongside articles which supported this, there were also some that criticized it.

For example, Sherif 'Abdin, in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, referred to Egyptian beach volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy's modest clothing and hijab, claiming that this was a mark of honor not so much for Islam as for the West, which is willing to accept other cultures. He wrote: "Some believe, out of ignorance, that athletes competing in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, or that [Muslims] praying in public streets or parks in Europe, are a victory for Islam... But the way I see it, the West and its legal systems are the real winners in these events, because the victory here is for tolerant cultures that embrace the other and respect pluralism and different beliefs. Therefore, it was not odd that the spotlight quickly shifted from the Egyptian volleyball players with their modest dress to the Dutch, German, and Colombian players, who abandoned their bikinis... covering up in solidarity with the Egyptian players..."[3]

Doaa Elghobashy during Olympic volleyball match (Image:

Egyptian journalist Ahmad 'Abd Al-Tawab criticized whoever it was that allowed a Muslim sprinter to compete in the Games wearing modest clothing that, he said, precluded any chance of winning. He wrote: "Competing in Olympic sprints wearing a hijab, trousers, and a long-sleeved shirt with a t-shirt over it was not the mistake of the Egyptian sprinter. She is a dedicated and eager young woman who does not understand the full implications of [this choice]. The question to ask is who allowed her to represent Egypt in the race [thus attired], knowing full well that she could never win... It is no coincidence that, in races, all the athletes wear light, aerodynamic and unencumbering clothes. The result of flouting this norm was that our sprinter came in last and collapsed at the finish line, having strained herself more than the others.

"As for the nonsense about our moral values that do not allow us to do various things [that draw attention to a woman's body] - it was the clothing of the Egyptian sprinter that caused her, and only her, to be the focus of the cameras' and spectators' attention. The Olympic Games showcase the wonders of the human physique. Some female athletes, including the sprinters, are on a diet that keeps them at the lowest possible weight, to the extent that they lose all signs of femininity... [But] those who see [women] as nothing but [symbols of] sex and attractiveness suffer from a mental disorder and should seek treatment for it.

"It is the right of any woman to wear the hijab if she wants to, but representing Egypt in a race that cannot be won [in modest clothing] - that is the main problem."[4]

Egyptian Writers: Egyptian Judoka's Refusal To Shake Israeli Opponent's Hand - An Attempt To Distract From His Defeat

Another incident that garnered a great deal of Arab attention was the bout between Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby [again stylized according to news stories] and Israeli judoka Or Sasson. El Shehaby went ahead with the match despite media pressure on him not to by anti-normalization elements in Egypt.

El Shehaby's decision to fight, his swift defeat, and his refusal to shake his Israeli opponent's hand after the bout in accordance with the norms of the sport triggered waves of criticism in the Arab world. Hussein Al-Zanati wrote in Al-Ahram that by refusing to shake hands, El Shehaby "sent the world a negative message about Egyptian athletes, which was leveraged by the global Zionist propaganda machine to portray us all as extremists, uncultured, and unsportsmanlike." He added: "The question is: If Islam El Shehaby truly opposes normalization with the Zionists, why did he agree to fight the Israeli in the first place? And if he did so out of a desire to wage jihad against an 'enemy' and defeat him, then why wasn't he better prepared to win?... Did Islam El Shehaby expect that his refusal to shake the Israeli's hand and the media show [it created] would lead to us carrying him on our shoulders and turning him into a national hero of Arabism and Islam? Should we cheer for him when he chose normalization with the Israeli enemy...?

"It would have been better for the [Egyptian] judoka to refuse to fight. It would have been more honorable to him and to us... and more in line with the position of most Egyptians. But to choose to compete, to suffer a humiliating loss, and then to want to become a popular hero [by refusing to shake hands] - this is the embodiment of shame and an insult to our intelligence. Heroism means having principles and defending them, rather than trying to mock everyone and play both sides."[5]

Egyptian intellectual Mamoun Fandy, writing in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, also attacked El Shehaby for his refusal to shake hands, arguing that this only served Israel: "What the Egyptian judoka did raises questions not [only] in sports but also cultural ones... What motivates Egyptian society to try and transform a defeat on the ground into a false verbal victory? Why would Egyptians cheer an illusion at the expense of reality?...

"While countries from around the world win dozens of gold and silver medals, a handful of Egyptians has entangled us... in the false incident of one young man who was defeated. The Olympics is an industry of true heroes, who become role models and symbols of national pride for their countries. Where is the pride in a young man who was beaten and who can only refuse to shake an Israeli's hand? None of us asked why 300 million Arabs were unable to produce a winner of medals like France, which has a population of no more than 70 million... This refusal to shake hands produced a saying which has become one of Israel's best propaganda messages: 'Losing doesn't make you a loser but hate makes you a loser.' [With this] as proof, pro-Israel media have succeeded in portraying us as a culture of hatred...  [while] some of us are cheering defeats and painting them as victories.

"This phenomenon is the most dangerous virus, which will quickly make Egypt not only a failed country, but a failed culture that deceives itself [and depicts] illusions as reality. This is a delusional view that prevails in failed societies, which wait for money to fall on them from the sky and for fortune to turn their lives around overnight like a lottery win. Establishing cultures and countries is difficult, and not a matter of sheer luck...

"[This was] a double defeat: [first,] the defeat of a judoka who should have accepted his loss and not politicized it, and second, the propaganda defeat, which cost Israel no effort at all to achieve...

"The first step in treatment is to diagnose the disease. We are undoubtedly a diseased culture."[6]

Egyptian Columnist: Michael Phelps' Cupping Doesn't Prove Islam Right

The purple cupping marks visible on American swimmer Michael Phelps and other athletes sparked great interest in the Arab world. Some claimed that the practice of cupping is Islamic in origin and that the athletes' use of it proves the truth of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings about it. Thus, for example,, which bills itself as "a scientific initiative" by researches and scientists to convey scientific knowledge to Muslim readers, stated in an article titled "The Benefits of Cupping Take the Rio Olympics and the Global Media by Storm": "Congratulations to those interested only in questioning the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, even if science proves them accurate every day," and included quotes from Muhammad's praise of cupping.[7] Another website explained that cupping was "a practice known in Islamic societies for centuries... The roots of this practice in Arab societies are the so-called 'Prophet's medicine,' which is based on recommendations of the Prophet Muhammad..."[8]

Cupping marks visible on the body of American swimmer Michael Phelps (Image:, August 11, 2016)

Khaled Montasser, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, mocked these claims and accused those who make them of hypocrisy. He said that such claims are a mark of shame for Islam, and that, had the Prophet Muhammad lived today, he would have adopted modern medicine. Montasser wrote:

"The fact that many Muslims, particularly Salafis, were happy to see the purple marks on the body of American swimmer Michael Phelps at the Rio Olympics attests only to the scope of the disaster afflicting the minds, thought, and souls of [Muslim] believers... The great joy that overcame them was caused by the fact that these marks were the result of cupping, making them think that Phelps had become convinced of the principles of Islam and had converted to Islam, and that this was proof that Islam is right, and that the Prophet's medicine [is also right]...

"Such rejoicing at information like this, and perceiving it as a victory for the religion [Islam], lends it [Islam] fragility and perceives it as lacking any immunity and as vulnerable to potential collapse with every foreign virus. Otherwise, why aren't the Chinese jumping for joy because all media outlets reporting on [Phelps' cupping] noted that it originated in China? Why don't the Chinese declare Buddhism the winner, crow about Buddha being right, and so on? Because [the Chinese] are self-confident and trust their knowledge and their ability to enhance this knowledge, and because they do not mix religion, an absolute, with [scientific] knowledge, which is relative, and therefore paid no heed to this report...

"This is not 'the Prophet's medicine,' but rather medicine that was practiced during the time of the Prophet. Had he lived today, he would have adopted modern medicine, getting ultrasounds, MRIs, etc. Anyone asking nowadays for treatment by cauterization or bloodletting is like asking for anesthesia by being hit on the head with a hammer. As for those who preach and trade in 'the Prophet's medicine,' which has nothing to do with the Prophet - why don't they implement the Prophet's transportation and ride a she-camel instead of driving a Mercedes? ...

"Medical knowledge does not come from a swimmer or a boxer... All scientists agree that bloodletting and cupping have no place in and no connection to [modern] medicine. Some even define [bloodletting] as ridiculous, and those who perform it 'criminals'...

"The Salafis should [clarify] to us whether we are imitating the American infidels or are in conflict with them. When the Americans say homosexuality is not a disease, the Salafis scream: Infidels, heathens, preaching promiscuity, kill the Americans, throw them to the ground!... But when this swimmer with purple cupping marks emerges, we see this as... a clear victory over the U.S....

"My Salafi brothers, [modern] culture is a package deal, and you are welcome to the whole thing at no charge. But this culture is not a vegetable stand where you can pick and choose... We must adopt [modern] means, which are brains and knowledge... So I am saddened when I see you [Salafis] begging a swimmer who underwent cupping for acknowledgement of your religion."[9]




[1] Al-Ghad (Jordan), August 9, 2016.

[2] Al-Sabil (Jordan), August 15, 2016.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 17, 2016.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 21, 2016.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 15, 2016.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 15, 2016.

[7], August 18, 2016.

[8], August 11, 2016.

[9] Al-Watan (Egypt), August 12, 2016.


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