Egypt has sent more than 100 athletes to the London Games – and 36 of them are women. On both counts, that's more than ever before.
Egyptian fans already had a taste of Olympic glory this week. One of the men captured a silver medal in fencing. But the most anticipated event for Egyptians might be weightlifting, and the team of eight lifters competing in these Olympic Games includes three women.
I had a chance to watch 25 year-old Esmat Ahmed Mansour finish up one of her last workouts in Cairo before heading to London. She worked her way up 130 kilograms – or about 286 pounds — in what's called the "clean and jerk." Essentially, the lifter pulls the bar from the floor up to the area of her collar bones in one movement, and then thrusts it up over her head.
As she pulled off the lift, I turned to one of Mansour's coaches, Mahmoud Kamal Mahajoub, a former Olympic weightlifter himself, and asked if he could lift that amount of weight. Not now, he said, letting loose a laugh.
"I used to," he said.
Mahajoub said the first time he saw a woman lifting weights was in 1988 at an international competition in Eastern Europe. He was very skeptical, he said, about women competing in anything other than what he called "smooth" sports.
"At this time, I believed that woman's sports should be gymnastics, swimming," he said. "But weightlifting, this was very strange," he said.
Since then, "this was normal."
Weightlifting is popular in Egypt. Mahajoub said you can go to just about any small village and find lots of young people pumping iron and building their bodies.
Egyptian Olympians have been lifting weights since ancient times, of course, but they've had more modern success too. Mahajoub said Egypt has won six gold medals over all in weightlifting. And theh last one, coincidentally, was back in 1948, in London.
"Now, we're going back to London," Mahajoub said. "I hope we get any kind of medals. I won't say gold, but any kind of medal."
Esmat Ahmed Mansour said the team is ready to compete.
She started getting serious about weightlifting at the age of 9. Nowadays, she spends the whole year traveling, training and competing. Women's weightlifting, she said, is getting a lot more attention now.
Like most of the women on the Egyptian team, Mansour does not wear a headscarf, and she works out right alongside her male teammates at Cairo's main athletic center.
"People in Egypt have gotten used to the idea that a woman's place is in the home," Mansour said. "But women like me want to show that we can compete."
She added that her family fully supports her career. "But some Egyptians give me a hard time. They make ignorant comments. And I don't really care," she said.
"Since I've proven myself in weightlifting, more and more Egyptian girls have been taking up the sport."
Mansour said she's won so many medals at world championships and regional competitions that she's stopped counting. It's the Olympic medal she wants now. But she's going to have to be patient.
Mansour placed ninth this week in London for her weight class. One of her female teammates came in fifth on Friday. Egypt's best chance for another medal in 2012 might be another teammate, Nahla Ramadan Mohamed. She will be competing in the final women's weightlifting event on Sunday.