Egyptian wrestler Ahmed Baghdouda’s disappearance on 20 May has ignited a social media frenzy in Egypt and the Arab world, following reports of his escape to France.
The incident took place while Baghdouda, 22, was in Tunisia to participate in the African Wrestling Championship held last week, eventually snagging the silver medal in the 63-kilogram Greco-Roman category – his second silver in two years.
The Egyptian Wrestling Federation issued a statement on Facebook in response to the growing concerns, ensuring that the matter is under investigation and that it will take any necessary legal actions.
THE DAY OF THE DISAPPEARANCE
President of the Egyptian Wrestling Federation, Essam El-Nawar, took to primetime television to give an account of the athlete’s mysterious departure.
In a live interview with television presenter Lamis El-Hadidy on 23 May, El-Nawar explained that on the last day of the Egyptian delegation’s stay in Tunisia, Baghdouda requested to exchange currencies to buy gifts for friends and family.
“He returned explaining that he required his passport to exchange currencies…He took it and headed down again. He has been missing since then,” El-Nawar added. His bag was found empty, indicating that Baghdouda fled with all his personal belongings.
The federation filed a police report shortly after, informing the Egyptian Embassy and all relevant authorities about the incident.
El-Nawar later confirmed during his interview with El-Hadidy that Baghdouda, who possessed a valid Schengen Area travel visa, is currently in France.
TO SYMPATHIZE OR TO SHAME? EGYPT DEBATES
Baghdouda’s escape to Europe sparked a heated debate on social media over Egypt’s treatment of athletes, their compensation, and the lot of those representing their country in athletic contests.
Some social media users criticized Baghdouda’s decision as selfish and an embarrassment to Egypt in the sporting world. Other users sympathized with the young wrestler, believing the country fails to adequately reward and recognize its champion athletes.
In Baghdouda’s case, El-Nawar confirmed that he receives a monthly gross income of EGP 3,000 (USD 97) as a wrestler.
Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris took to Twitter to urge Baghdouda to return.
“Come back and I will fix everything that bothers you,” Sawiris tweeted to his eight million followers. “We’re your fellow countrymen, and we want you back.”
Ahmed Baghdouda’s father, Fouad, also went on air with El-Hadidy on 23 May to address his son’s departure amidst widespread debate. Baghouda, a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw) driver, asserted that he remains unaware of his son’s whereabouts. He confirmed that the final communication between them occurred shortly after his son won the second-place position in the championship.
The elder Baghdouda later talked about the pressures and injustices his son faced, alleging that his son did receive any financial compensation from the federation for years.
“I swear to you that my son has been registered in the wrestling federation for 12 years and has not received a single pound,” Baghdouda asserted.
He added that his son received a reward of EGP 16,000 (USD 517) for the silver medal, but EGP 14,000 (USD 478) were deducted as taxes, leaving Ahmed with only EGP 1,200 Egyptian pounds (USD 38).
Egypt’s Tax Authority later explained that the deduction was the outcome of a ten percent income taxation, a three percent development fee, and repayment of a EGP 13,680 (USD 442) loan.
El-Hadidy, upon hearing of the compensation, voiced her opinion that athletes of Baghdouda’s level require more to maintain a proper standard of living.
Baghdouda also refuted claims that his son intended to flee and condemned those calling him a fugitive.
“My son received the Schengen in March 2023 and never intended to flee. If he wanted to escape, he could have fled during the tournament in Croatia,” argued Baghdouda. He added the possibility that pressures forced him to take such action, mainly due to ill-treatment and a lack of recognition.
“I am a tuk-tuk driver living month by month. I do my best to provide my son with what he needs but there is only so much I can do,” shared the father. “The federation provides so little that my son has to beg his teammates for their shoes during competitions.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR BAGHDOUDA?
The exact whereabouts of Baghdouda in France remains unclear to both the federation and his family.
El-Nawar conveyed his appreciation for Baghdouda’s sportsmanship prior to disappearing, referring to him as one of the most respectful athletes in his age bracket. El-Nawar also assured Baghdouda had never raised compensation concerns to the federation before.
The wrestling federation also confirmed in their statement that they will consult with United World Wrestling, the international governing body for wrestling, to ensure Baghdouda remains an athlete under Egypt.
Baghdouda’s escape is not the first case in Egypt’s wrestling world. Wrestlers Mohamed Essam, Ahmed Bousha, and Tarek Abdelsalam fled to European states in 2022, 2017, and 2016 respectively. Abdelsalam would later obtain Bulgarian citizenship and represent the European state instead of Egypt.