We head over to the third season of renowned fitness extravaganza ELFIT Reebok, to witness the salubrious citizens of the country in action, and speak to the athletes about pushing themselves to the limit and changing perceptions of health in Egypt.
Powerful screams echo as enthusiastic athletes cheer on their counterparts at the ELFIT Reebok semi-finals, where 136 fitness aficionados strive to make it to the final competition that will crown the Middle East’s functional fitness champion.
Returning for its third season, the leading fitness event has now expanded to the region, introducing qualifications in five countries across the Arab world. The upcoming finals, which will take place on October 22-24, will see Egypt’s top 20 males and top 10 females competing against the winners from Lebanon, Palestine, Kuwait and UAE, where qualifications are running in the coming weeks.
“We started in 2013, inspired by events around the world like the Cross-fit Games. We wanted to introduce something new to the community, a private competition where we can test athletes and give people from different backgrounds the chance to compete, have fun, and more importantly, to have a goal,” says ELFIT’s co-founder Adam El Zoghby, who is also a Managing Partner of In The Zone Sports. “A lot of athletes go to the gym to look good; but we are creating a reason for them to work out, win or lose, and have a reason to train rather than just showing off their bodies,” he adds.
At one of the workout stations, Ekramy Tantawy lifts a massive weight while his younger brother Sharaf, some metres away, jumps up and down on another test. They are four brothers competing against each other as their father, a world-champion boxer who is now 65, keeps inspiring them with his practice. “What does it feel like? Well, we are four brothers; we compete everyday over who goes to the bathroom first!” he jokes.
As he tells his personal journey in functional fitness, Ekramy unveils the inspirational drive pushing him to win the competition. “I was a professional athlete doing triathlons in the USA, but I suddenly found out I was diabetic,” he says, “And fitness somehow became my motivation, because winning is not always coming in first place or being the best. Sometimes overcoming something inside of yourself feels like glory. That’s why I compete here, to give hope and help other people believe in themselves and become a better version of themselves.”
Stories like Tantawy’s, filled with inspiration and an empowering message, abounded at the two-day competition, where athletes put their strength, their endurance, their speed, and their passion, to the test. Take the case of Ben Ewig, an American wrestler who moved to Port Said, in Egypt’s Delta, where he and his wife are starting a fitness center aiming to inspire youth across the remote corners of the country to lead healthier lifestyles.
“We felt that, with the problems of health and diabetes that people suffer in Egypt, it would be good to open a clinic for health and nutrition. But since I have experience in functional fitness, we started by opening a sports center,” he says. Ewig not only qualified 5th at the semi-finals, but also proudly successfully got three of his trainees to qualify among the 136 semi-finalists.
“There is a lot to learn from the athletes themselves. We learn body language, eye contact, how to control our emotions; and even the different ways they can cheat,” says ironically Yasmine Hossam, one of the judges supervising the workouts.
As the winners were announced, by the end of the event, Haitham Mahgoub, a senior financial analyst by day and an ELFIT trainer and competitor at night, heads to the podium and proudly holds the first prize: a LE 3,000 cheque and a LE 2000 voucher to get his Reebok gear. “I have been doing this every year since it started, and also won last year’s competition,” he says as he proudly shows his top weightlifting record: 295 pounds. “It’s not a very strong record as other athletes have broken this level; but I beat them in high endurance, that’s where my talent is. I don’t have a very strong body, but I do have a very strong heart,” he adds, almost oblivious of the beauty of the metaphor.
Both a trainer and competitor at ELFIT, Mahgoub stresses that he uses the same program that he created for his trainees. “I hate myself as a coach because the program is very tough. But what makes the difference is not the program; it’s the performance,” he says.
As more and more Egyptians sign up to pump up their bodies and put their resistance to the test, the competition expands into a leading full-fledged health event. “We started from the bottom, where competitors only had gym backgrounds, but we kept introducing new techniques and new workouts each year,” says ELFIT’s brand manager and technical supervisor Ahmad Shawkat, “This year, we are also working with third parties in the five other countries, where there are different hosts to handle logistics and operations to make the competition go across borders.”
“We also want to change mentalities,” Elzoghby adds, “Many people think body building is better, but they can’t make it through the first workout. We want to stress the difference between being strong and being fit: Being strong means lifting heavy weight, but you cannot run and you cannot endure. Being fit is a well-rounded concept.”
“It is also important for us to motivate people who don’t think of working out. We want to encourage them to come and try; we give them motivation, be it on a professional level or not. That´s why we added the primary layer of qualifications, where we had a 41-year-old lady competing, to give beginners a chance regardless of whether they win or lose,” he says.
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