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Rania Elwani: Egypt’s Golden Fish

Rania Elwani
It’s a mildly cold winter day here in the urban streets of Mohandeseen, one of Cairo’s famous districts. Just around Zamalek and not too far off the majestic Nile, it seems quite a fitting setting for an overdose of inspiration and an abundance of experience. we’re about to meet one of the most illustrious and decorated female Egyptian athletes. Egypt’s very own Golden Fish.

Rania Elwani, a household name across the Egypt, Africa and beyond when it comes to the world
of swimming, greets me with a soft, yet confident hand shake in her apartment office. A doctor
by trade and a world class swimmer, we sit down and talk everything from her turning points,
her international experience, the development of swimming in Egypt and her favorite
nicknames. Welcome to Elwani’s world.

“The Golden Fish,” Rania counters with a smile. Breaking the ice, I ask her what her favorite
nickname is. She’s proud of it. It hasn’t been easy earning it, and not a lot of people know the
story behind one of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most prominent names in the sport of
swimming. “I started as a tennis player and a swimmer. My family all comes from a sports
background, be it football, volleyball or tennis, we all had to choose a sport to pursue. As long as
it was in Al Ahly club, it was alright.” The Al Ahly influence in her life has been a major point.

She’s now a member of the Ahly board and tries to give back whenever possible. Her history
spans three Olympic Games, an elected IOC member as one of the 12 athlete members from
2004 to 2012, representing athletes in the Olympic movement and more. She’s also on the
WADA – World Anti-Doping Agency – board, the ANOC – Association of National Olympic
Committees in WADA and endless experiences across different sports functions. Although she’s
been winning championships since the age of 8, her introduction to Egyptian and Arab fans
came in the 92 African games.

The major turning point came from 1993 to 1995 when she started competing in World Cups and winning medals. Three medals in the Junior Nationals in the USA also got her 11 scholarships to go to college in the states. She ended up choosing SMU (Southern Methodist University) for sporting purposes. “I made decisions not entirely based on education. Maybe I should’ve picked a school based on both education and swimming, but I knew I was returning to finish medical school in Egypt. I had already started, then got the scholarship and moved abroad. I then returned to finish medical school.”

Education is a crucial pillar in sports development, but this is not necessarily the case in Egypt. “In Egypt, if you want to pursue your education, you cannot become the professional swimmer that you want to be. The Experience, confidence, everyone in the same boat, performing in class – education is important,” she asserts. “A good athlete is a smart athlete. Success is an attitude.

Being motivated to study, get good grades to train, be successful in aspects of your life. The education system has to change to incorporate sports. Athletes don’t perform on a high level because of the education system. At the age of 18, athletes compete every two weeks, with lots of competitions, training every day. There are lots of obstacles preventing athletes from becoming professional. We have a good sports system, but we don’t have a good education system to support that. A competition system between schools has to be implemented.

Universities abroad are proud to have the best athletes. We don’t have that system. Parents are competitive at a very young age where it’s not important. Education of the society, the parents and initiating a cultural change is the epitome of it all.” she concludes.

Making use of that experience gained in her years at the International Olympic Committee is quite valuable. It however, doesn’t come without a price when it’s applied in Egypt. “With management in international organizations like the IOC, it’s more about having statutes and following them. Whoever is in the chair follows them. Here in Egypt, everyone changes rules and laws.” It might seem an easy feat at first, but convincing people that this is the right thing to do.

That rules, charters and statures are not optional. It all lies in the mentality. Putting that experience to good use is imperative to the success of development. When talking about the roles of federations and ministries, it could get a bit jaded. There are various administrative obstacles and the need to properly address those issues is crucial in moving forward. “The Swimming Federation has to follow the rules of the international federation and apply it in Egypt, while the ministry should just be involved with the education system through sports competitions. Interference between the sports ministry and the federation is the main conflict since roles and responsibilities are unidentified,” Elwani comments.

The development of the sport through making use of resources is an important pillar in the commercialization of the sport in Egypt and necessary for development purposes. “Every international federation has a system and a budget for development. The national federation should utilize the resources of the international federation. Make use of the Olympic Movement and the Federations. The Olympic Solidarity has a budget that goes to the Olympic Committee, and then chooses talents in Egypt to which this money goes to.

We need to basically make use of resources, either from the International Federation or the IOC through the OS.
This will then improve cultural level of families involved in the swimming, providing coach training and more. There has to be agreements between the ministry of sports and education, along with the federation to improve the sporting competition education system in Egypt.” It all sounds quite simple when you hear it from someone with a vision. It’s all about having the proper environment to be able to apply it.

We talk a bit about her influence on Arab women and the international community as a veiled, Arab athlete. The veil – or Hijab issue comes up. Rania is uber-positive about it. “Wearing a veil is a personal choice. Nothing will stop you from doing what you want to do,” she says. “I like to think that I’ve had some influence on women athletes in a positive way. They sometimes tell me we always wanted to be like you. They have the talent; they just need someone to think they can do it, to believe in themselves. For the international community it’s important because it was always looked on that we don’t have the athletes. We’re changing that mentality.” The Arab Spring doesn’t have the same rosy effect as we chat about its effect on athletes in the Arab world.

“The lack of competitions and instability in training all affects the performance. There has been no positive impact on the sport, but on the contrary, it has worsened the performance when competing at a local level.” But what does it take to develop young swimmers to become champions? “There has to be focus on technique at young age. Focus on the fun and enjoying the game. Coach education is crucial as well. We have abundance in athletes and coaches, but we don’t have talent in management. Providing education is crucial in changing that.” Farida Osman, an 18 year old Egyptian is now in the United States, is one name that keeps popping up.

Rania believes that this is one name to watch out for.I shuffle in my chair. As I take a sip out of my cup of tea and throw her a tricky question. Has she been offered the Sports Minister’s job before? “Three times in a row. It’s just not the right time.

People thought I said no, but I didn’t say no. I was just lucky they chose someone else at the last minute each time. I was lucky because I didn’t believe it was the right time for me. You would never be able with everything happening around you to get something properly done. It’s not about what you want rather if you can do it in this system or not. If I’m responsible for something I have to be involved in it. This was not the right time,” she says confidently.

Hypothetically speaking, if offered the job again and the time were right to start working, what would be a priority to move sports forward in Egypt? “We need a constitution, parliament elections, a president and stability. Short and long term plans need to be set. Solving a problem should not be a minister’s job. A Minister has to have a system around where people are responsible for crisis management, budgeting and planning, development, give responsibilities.

A Minister should be the leader, the person who puts the whole scheme together. We need to have a respectable new sports law. We need to stop government interference in the professional sports sector, enhance the education sporting system in Egypt, create a product where a sponsor comes and pays for and as a ministry – apply rules to attract sponsors.” She’s quite focused in what she’s saying. This comes from the years of experience in the industry.

She clearly asserts that in the short term, it’s crucial to set proper strategies, rules and regulations. This is imperative for the long term plans like changing the education system, proper staffing of the organizations and more.

It’s almost mid-day yet we’ve got so much more to talk about. With a plethora of issues going on, what’s next for Rania Elwani? “I’m trying to become a good doctor. It’s a difficult field. I enjoy traveling for the Olympic movement and I want to provide my kids with the same sporting and education background that I have been provided.”

As we wrap up our talk together, I ask one simple question. What does the future hold for Egypt? She’s quite optimistic. “I think better things. The Egyptian people are not willing to take no for answer, the people’s attitude is changing. There will be a better Egypt,” she assuredly asserts with a gleam in her eye. With more people like Dr. Rania Elwani at the helm, it does look like a better Egypt is not far down the road.

*This interview was first published in the first issue of ISMO Magazine, February 2014.

Co-founder of and a Cairo-based journalist with over 5 years of experience in sports journalism. Working previously in international, a Sports Editor of READ Newspaper, doing TV punditry and freelancing in various blogs and publications. He’ll be bringing all this experience to King Fut.

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