Inside Egypt’s Grassroots Triathlon Revolution
Susan Grant Legacki looks inside the Egyptian triathlon revolution—and the sport’s thorny history in the Middle East.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
s few years ago, triathlon in the Middle East was dominated by wealthy gulf states whose rulers supported it out of both personal passion and political goals. But a grassroots multisport movement in Egypt is gaining momentum, giving residents weary from upheaval a treasured outlet to escape violence, stay healthy, and create a positive sense of community. Susan Grant Legacki looks inside the Egyptian triathlon revolution—and the sport’s thorny history in the Middle East.
Less than one week after assuming office in 2014, incumbent Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got on his bicycle and (flanked by bodyguards) led the prime minister and dozens of members of a newly formed Egyptian cabinet on a 12-mile roll through the streets of Cairo as he touted the importance of exercise, healthy living, and alternative transportation.
Sisi’s highly publicized lunch ride was much more than just a photo-op; it was a show of approval and support for the growing endurance sport trend emerging through the cracks of revolution.
In 2011, energized by the Arab Spring in other parts of the world, millions of Egyptian youth revolted against President Hosni Mubarak and police brutality. This began more than two years of mass protests and bloodshed throughout the country.
In June 2013, Sisi played a large role in the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak’s successor, and in the August 2013 Rabaa massacre—an event in which hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands were wounded.
The years of revolution and instability had left the country—especially Egypt’s large youth population—demoralized. For so many months they had come out en masse to ght for democracy, and the end result was mixed at best. Desperate for an outlet and for a way to connect outside of their homes, many Egyptians began exploring mass participation sports like running, cycling, and triathlon.
Zamalek resident Salma Hamdy is one such athlete. A member of several triathlon, running and cycling groups in Egypt, she co-founded the Facebook group “The Zamalek Early Risers” in 2015. Her group has regular meetups at dawn for runs along the Nile River
before the desert climate takes hold. Hamdy says her workout group has quite simply changed her life. “Groups like these give so much hope for those of us who once thought competing in sport like this just wasn’t possible.”
Triathlon, once largely seen in the Middle East as a sport used by expats, tourists, and wealthy rulers in oil-rich Persian Gulf states to display their power and Western savoir- faire, is increasingly becoming a sport of the people—a way for residents of war-torn countries to escape violence, stay healthy, and create a positive sense of community. It’s also a trend largely supported by many Middle Eastern governments, whether as a simple public health initiative, or (in the case of Sisi) a gesture of good faith with a side of placation.
As far back as the late 90’s, multisport began popping up in more stable, “tourist- friendly” middle-eastern areas like southern Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The half and full iron-distance event Israman began in 1999, and in 2010, high-end event company IMG introduced the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, which was taken over by the International Triathlon Union in 2014 and is now a part of the ITU’s World Triathlon Series. The race received international attention in 2012 when American pro triathlete Andrew Starykowicz accidentally ran into a race volunteer on the bike course.
She was severely injured; he was subsequently imprisoned in the country for a month without due process, highlighting the clash between the UAE’s desire to appear liberal and progressive through sport, and its politics.
The event didn’t stop American and European triathlon companies from flooding into the UAE, seeking to monopolize an emerging market. In 2014, the Challenge Family announced the $1 million Nasser bin Hamad Triple Crown Series, scheduled to take place in Dubai, Bahrain, and Oman. However things zzled when the latter two events were unexpectedly cancelled—Bahrain due to permitting issues, Oman due to political upheaval in neighboring Yemen. Ironman quickly swooped into the UAE in 2015 with two events in Bahrain and Dubai that are still a part of the company’s roster.
In early 2018, the recently revamped European triathlon event company TriStar, now partially owned by former Swiss pro cyclist Fabian Cancellara, announced that they would also enter the UAE with a premier half iron-distance event in Fujairah in March.
It’s important to note that many Middle Eastern countries are extremely siloed from one another, both politically and culturally, and this isolation includes the spread of multisport. For example, while races like Israman have been growing steadily since 1999 (more than 1,640 athletes from 22 different countries participated in the 2018 event, up from a mere 500 in 2009), the first triathlon event wasn’t held next door in Egypt until 2014. And what makes the tri scene in Egypt truly exciting—particularly compared to triathlon in the UAE—is it’s coming from the ground up.
If there is any one person responsible for bringing amateur triathlon to Egypt, it is likely the founder of TriFactory, Ayman Hakky. In 2018, TriFactory will put on half a dozen triathlons in and around Cairo, with an estimated 1,000 participants—most of them Egyptian.
Hakky will be the first to tell you that starting a triathlon event company has been a journey he never foresaw. In 2010, the Egyptian was introduced to the sport by coworkers while working in Trinidad for a year with British Petroleum. He completed his first Ironman in Barcelona a year later, but when he moved back to Egypt he was discouraged to discover that the nearest triathlon was all the way in Dubai. “I got a group of friends together and we trained for Challenge Dubai and from there my training company, Train for Aim, was born,” Hakky says.
But the travel proved to be both time-consuming and expensive, so in 2014, Hakky and a few others got together to plan their own local event. Set along the beautiful Sahl Hasheesh Bay in the Red Sea, Hakky expected a few dozen athletes to attend, mostly those with whom he had regularly trained. Instead, almost 200 people signed up for the event, which was advertised almost exclusively via social media and word of mouth. “It just exploded, and next thing I knew there was a major TV channel covering the event.”
Hakky knew he was onto something, and in 2015 TriFactory Events was born. Last year TriFactory events had roughly 3,000 participants across six races, ranging from super-sprint to Olympic distance, with each event seeing between 35- and 40-percent female participation— an astounding number, given the country’s historically poor women’s rights status—and a percentage right on par with women’s tri participation in the U.S. According to USA Triathlon’s 2015 Membership Participation Report, the total number of American female participants at U.S.-sanctioned races is roughly 37 percent.
“While the majority of our registrants are Egyptian, we have had between 25 and 30 nationalities represented at our events, including athletes from the United States, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and the Czech Republic,” says TriFactory’s media and communications director, Lamia Hassan.
Hakky believes that the growth of triathlon in his country comes largely from an increased interest in healthy living and the idea of amateur sport; he balks at the idea of a political connection. “I’ve heard people say that for sure,” he says. “But I think it’s just the timing; Egyptians began to learn more about healthy living from the rest of the world on social media, and it became something they wanted for themselves.” Hakky says that most of his participants learn about his events from their friends on social media and through the numerous sports groups that have popped up throughout Cairo that communicate largely on Facebook.
There are dozens of Egyptian Facebook groups facilitating training meetups and facility events. Cairo Runners, founded in 2012, regularly puts on enormous group running events along the Nile most Friday mornings that bring up to 8,000 eager participants. One of the biggest multisport groups, Maadi Athletes (named after a Cairo suburb and founded in 2013) has well over 1,700 followers,1,200 team members, and organizes group workouts most days of the week.
The large role of social media in shaping the cultural trends makes more sense when you consider Egypt’s demographics: One of the youngest populations in the world, nearly 75 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and only 3 percent is over the age of 65. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Egypt suffers from a “youth bulge” meaning its abnormally high unemployment rate of 12 percent (as of 2017) stems largely from the fact that the number of people entering the workforce each year increases by a mere 4 percent. (For comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate in 2017 hovered around 4.4 percent, and the population’s median age is about 38, with about 15 percent of the population over 65.)
Almost 95 percent of Egypt’s approximately 96 million residents live along the Nile, in and around Cairo and Alexandria, making the Nile Valley one of the world’s most densely populated areas. It should come as no surprise, then, that both Hakky and Hamdy agree the biggest obstacle to training in Egypt—far greater than even the threat of terrorism—is an issue familiar to many triathletes throughout the world: road safety. “The biggest challenge by far in Egypt is that there aren’t many proper cycling roads. It isn’t easy to ride outside here, and unfortunately, it can also be quite dangerous,” Hakky says. “Indoor studios and Zwift are quite popular here as a result, but if you want to get out on the roads, you really only have one option—the Sokhna Highway.”
But the increased demand is fueling infrastructure. On January 6, a 180-kilometer bike lane—the longest of its kind in the Middle East—was installed along the Sokhna Highway, the result of a joint effort between the Maadi Athletes and the National Company for Roads Building and Development. Members of the Maadi athletes applauded the efforts on social media, but many of them also complained that the lack of a guardrail separating the bike lane from the busy highway negated much of the bike lane’s protection. Still, it was deemed a symbolic gesture in the right direction and a sign that the endurance community in Egypt could exact some positive social change.
Far across the Saudi Arabian desert, in the UAE, not only is the cycling infrastructure far different, but instead of grassroots growth, triathlon has penetrated society from the top down.
Approaching Abu Dhabi from the air, you’ll see the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Highway running northwest across a collection of islands. If the wind is in your favor, riding along this stretch of road is like sitting in the slipstream of a semi. And when you roll onto the asphalt on the nearby Yas Marina F1 Race Track—well, it’s the closest thing to zero-percent rolling resistance you’ll ever experience.
It’s easy to see why the capital of the UAE was tailor-made for triathlon. Abu Dhabi gives new meaning to the word excess—24-karat gold lattes, palm-tree lined streets below cloud- dancing skyscrapers, and you’ll find more Lamborghinis than you would at an Italian car show.
The man at the center of much of this is undoubtedly Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and founder of the Bahrain Endurance 13 racing team. An avid triathlete himself, Sheikh Nasser most recently competed at the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, where he secured a spot at the 2018 Ironman World Championship.
In three short years, the Bahrain Endurance 13 has become arguably one of the most successful pro teams in triathlon, with athletes on this year’s roster including Ironman world champions Daniela Ryf and Jan Frodeno, Olympic gold and silver medalists Alistair Brownlee and Javier Gomez, and Ironman 70.3 world champions Terenzo Bozzone and Holly Lawrence.
At the team’s public announcement in 2015, Sheikh Nasser was quoted as saying that it was his belief that “through triathlon, people can enjoy a better life.” While his personal interest and commitment to the growth of the sport in his country are evident, his decision over the last three years to put millions of dollars into various sports— which also includes a pro cycling team and numerous Formula 1 Grand Prix events—belies a possible ulterior motive of effectively whitewashing Bahrain’s history of human rights abuses.
As an example, the tri team name Bahrain Endurance 13 comes with an unfortunate double meaning.
In February 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring and largely organized via social media, a mass anti-government protest took place in Manama—the capital city of Bahrain—that would continue on and off until 2014.
The uprising began as a call by the country’s Shia population for equal rights, but quickly escalated into an effort to end the Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa monarchy. After four days, the protest came to a head with a night raid on February 17, 2011—known as Bloody Thursday.
In the following months, 13 activists believed to have played a large role in the organization of the uprising were arrested. Known as the “Bahrain 13,” these activists were reportedly tortured—an atrocity condemned by world leaders, including the United States, and organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and The United Nations.
Sheikh Nasser and his legal team have repeatedly denied his involvement in the torture of Bahraini citizens, and there have been no formal charges placed against him. (As he is not technically a member of the government, there likely never will be.) However, in a 2017 article by The Guardian about Bahrain’s use of sport to launder their image, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs told the reporter that “Bahrain’s harnessing of the glamour and prestige of sport has helped de ect attention from the arrests of peaceful critics, reports of tortured detainees, unfair trials and death sentences.”
Bahrain Endurance 13 team director and two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack, tells a different story: McCormack says that the true vision for the team is to encourage the people of Bahrain to take charge of their own health through sport, and, to their credit, there is evidence that—possible ulterior motives aside—it is bringing a positive outlet and social change to the country.
“Bahrain, much like other Middle Eastern countries, struggles with issues of diabetes and obesity,” McCormack says. Sheikh Nasser “wanted athletes who spoke well and believed in his vision for change through sport and sporting leadership in family-friendly activities that are not always at the forefront of TV news.”
During the last five years, McCormack has spent a considerable amount of time in Bahrain and the UAE, and he’s been encouraged by the cultural shift triathlon has helped create. “There has been enormous change across the spectrum, more infrastructure and developments that now accommodate a broad range of events—this is a testament to the leaders in the country who are showing that sport is something that is powerful and can change a nation for the better.”
Similarly, in nearby Abu Dhabi, local leaders have followed suit. The Abu Dhabi Sports Council helped spearhead a partnership with the YAS Marina F1 Racing Circuit, where members of the public can regularly gain use of the track to run, walk, or cycle with their families. “There are hundreds of people—men, women, and children alike—who take advantage of the circuit track or who are making good use of new cycling roads and running tracks throughout Abu Dhabi,” says Sandro Steimer, head of projects at Human Sports Management, which is working with TriStar Triathlon for their event in Fujairah. “It’s part of a larger health movement in the Middle East, and seeing professionals train here and other locals train regularly and sign up for events just gives locals more motivation to try new things and find new ways to be healthier.”
The growth of triathlon in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and the UAE as a part
of a larger health movement is undeniably a positive thing for the people (politics aside)—but the ability of triathlon to grow on a grassroots level will depend on a number of cultural specifics being addressed and, in some cases, adapted.
The first of these is the issue of women’s rights and how accessible training, racing, and general triathlon participation is for female Muslim athletes. The religious and political implications on this topic are, of course, inextricably linked, and not only a matter of where in the Middle East an athlete lives, but also personal experience.
Salma Hamdy admits that she started Zamalek Early Risers partially because there were concerns about a female running alone. But she considers this de rigueur for any female or male athlete in Egypt when dealing with the harsh training conditions of the area. Many of her concerns about training were alleviated through the creation of a solid local community of like-minded individuals she could train with. And as for the nay-sayers? “I think they just got used to us,” she says.
That might not be the case for every woman in Egypt. Metropolitan areas like Cairo can be more forward-thinking, but in 2013 (even after the Arab Spring) Egypt was named the worst country in the Arab world for women by a poll conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
McCormack and Hakky agree that the largest influx of new participants to endurance sports in the Middle East are female—and seeing how the 40-percent female participation rate at TriFactory’s events is roughly double the percentage of female participation in Ironman events globally—one could easily argue that the Middle East’s endurance scene is currently smashing that glass ceiling. “We have created a community for women in Egypt that didn’t previously exist,” Hakky says. “You would never see women in their 50s and 60s competing in races, I mean, they might have been doing other things, but not this.”
But if the ceiling is shattering in some parts of the Middle East, it’s still oftentimes a constructed, even reversible outcome. When royal decrees allow for female participation in sports, it creates new opportunities for women to find a voice and a purpose, but it falls short of revolutionary when that freedom could be taken away at any moment.
Tiny victories, such as Saudi Arabia’s 2017 decision to let females drive, continue to move the needle, but as McCormack points out, no real change can be expected to happen overnight. “Bahrain is a very tolerant and liberal society when it comes to encouraging female participation in triathlon,” McCormack says. “But with any society that is steeped in religious culture, this will be a generational shift.”
The religious culture of the Middle East also necessitates some unique adaptations to triathlon training. During the holy month of Ramadan, for example, Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset. This is understandably a challenge while training for an Ironman, however triathletes in the second-largest worldwide religion have found a way to adapt.
Moroccan-born Muslim and paralympic triathlete Mohamed Lahna has trained for a number of events—including the infamously brutal Norseman Xtreme Triathlon—during Ramadan, and he considers the important holiday a blessing rather than a burden. “It is a time of re ection, and I look forward to it every year,” he says. “During my Norseman training, I planned most of my long sessions on my trainer after breaking the fast at sunset, which meant occasional overnight workouts. It’s challenging, but it makes it that much more rewarding to be able to endure these hardships and learn from them.”
The ability to endure is a character trait that will undoubtedly serve people in the Middle East well, as efforts to grow the sport there continue beyond exotic race locales for expats and destination-race enthusiasts.
Whether introduced to triathlon through social media, local grassroots sports clubs, or government decree, the simple act of participation in any form brings with it a step forward and the chance for change in the right direction. “There is no reason, culturally, for Muslims not to participate in triathlon,” Lahna says. “Their participation opens mindsets and will continue to inspire others to pursue sports, whether for leisure or for competition.”
It will be interesting to see the role that mass participation sports like triathlon play in a region still very much reeling from the revolutions of 2011. We can hope that President Sisi was speaking some truth when he declared at his public ride that, “The goal is not just to practice sports. There’s a message behind it, which is the unity of the Egyptian people.”
Susan Grant Legacki is the director of content at TrainingPeaks. Previously, she served as the founding editor of LAVA Magazine and senior editor at Inside Triathlon and Triathlete Magazine. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, young son, and misbehaving Rhodesian Ridgeback.