As one of the world’s leading modern pentathletes in her day, Egypt’s Aya Medany experienced first-hand the difficulties in being a Muslim woman in elite-level sport. Having since decided to focus solely on fencing, Aya is also a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission and hopes to represent the voice of female Muslim athletes worldwide.

  • Aya Medany has competed at three Olympic Games in modern pentathlon
  • She is a passionate advocate for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab while playing sport
  • She is now a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission and will be participating at the 2019 International Athletes’ Forum

I faced many challenges in my sport. There is a strong tradition in Arab countries and in Africa that you must work and study hard to have a good job, so it was difficult to balance this with my sporting ambitions.

Another challenge was my status as a Muslim woman competing in sport. Although I was ranked world number three going into Beijing 2008 and I was expected to win a medal for my country, I could only finish in eighth place.

I cried, I was upset, and I felt as if I had let my country down. I decided then that I wanted to wear a hijab while competing, but the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) rules stipulated that I could not wear a full swimming suit with long sleeves and trousers and that the shoulders and knees must be visible.

Finding a new path
I tried to fight against this decision, but nothing changed. Eventually, I accepted it and competed at London 2012, but I couldn’t manage to improve on my result from four years previously in Beijing.

Because of this, I decided to quit the sport. I had no funding, the 2011 revolution in Egypt was still an issue, and I felt as if nobody was prepared to listen to me about the hijab and that there was no fairness left in sport anymore.

Then one day, I was approached by the president of my National Federation. He said I was one of Egypt’s biggest role models and that the younger generation looked up to me and wanted to be like me. I entered the IOC Women and Sport Awards as my country’s candidate and won the IOC Continental Trophy for Africa in 2014.

This was the beginning of my second journey in sport. After feeling depressed a couple of years previously and thinking that there was no fairness anymore, suddenly I had won a trophy and was given money to support a programme helping girls, the young generation and sport in general in my country.

Joining the IOC Athletes’ Commission

I felt that no one in Egypt understood the culture of sport, so my goal was to change attitudes. I went to 15 schools and reached more than 300 children and young people, teaching them fencing and shooting, and organising a competition about the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement.

At the end of the project in 2015, I decided that I wanted to be a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission so that I could help Arab and African athletes facing the same problems I had with the hijab. I didn’t succeed in getting elected the first time, but after a few months the IOC President contacted me and asked if I wanted to join.

It was like winning an Olympic medal for me – being a part of the Olympic family is amazing. I never dreamed of being in a place like this. When I enter and see how people work and how well-organised it is, I can’t help but be impressed. I’m trying to learn and do everything possible for the athletes from Arab, Muslim and African backgrounds. I hope I can do better and achieve more.

Athlete365 is a very good opportunity for athletes from African countries and small countries who don’t have a strong voice to get themselves heard

Making your voice heard

Athlete365 is a very good opportunity for athletes from African countries and small countries who don’t have a strong voice to get themselves heard and discover more about the Commission’s work. You can have access to our newsletters, find out about the courses we run and get in touch about anything you need.

When my situation with the hijab arose, there was no such thing as Athlete365 – that’s why I fought until I had a voice. Through Athlete365, you can now do the same.

Aya and the other members of the IOC Athletes’ Commission will be hosting more than 300 athlete representatives at the 2019 International Athletes’ Forum, taking place on 13-15 April in Lausanne.