Ihab Abdelrahman El-Sayed was one of the surprise packages of 2014, ending the year as the world’s number one javelin thrower. SPIKES finds out how a coach from ‘the spiritual home of javelin’ could help propel him to world championship gold in Beijing.
Born into a non-sporty family in a village in the Al Sharqia region of Egypt, Ihab Abdelraham El-Sayed’s only athletic experience up until his late teens was kicking a football around with friends. Though soccer was El-Sayed’s first love – he is a passionate fan of Spanish side Real Madrid and Egyptian champions Al Ahly – it was in athletics that he first displayed sporting talent.
He was pushed towards his first competition aged 17 after he threw the javelin 40m from a standing position at his first ever attempt.
“My teacher at school said ‘If you win a gold medal in a national competition you will get higher marks at school.’ I didn’t really start the javelin for love, but by luck,” the 25-year-old admits.
He won that comp, and just two years later landed a stunning silver medal at the 2008 World Junior Championships in Poland. Later that year he earned a four-month IAAF scholarship to train in Kuortane in Finland – the country regarded as the spiritual home of the javelin.
However, the experience ended abruptly. Unable to speak a word of English, unused to the Arctic-like conditions and nursing a back injury, he returned to Egypt after just two weeks in Scandinavia.
“I didn’t understand a thing people were saying,” he recalls. “I stayed in my room for much of the time and I was very cold. It was white every day from snow and I thought: what am I doing here?”
Yet he was transfixed by seeing the world’s top throwers in action, including the 2007 world champion Tero Pitkamaki. He picked up as many training tips as possible from Finnish coach Petteri Piironen – the man who now guides his career – and after returning to Cairo he began English lessons and vowed to one day return.
Silver in the world juniors came a mere two years after first handling a javelin
Good to his word, the following year he spent a month in Kuortane and further cemented his relationship with Piironen (who also trains Julius "Mr YouTube Man" Yego). Improvements continued. In 2010 he was crowned African champion and cracked the 80m barrier for the first time.
Yet a dispute with his national federation over funds prevented him from returning to Finland to train. Such was El-Sayed’s frustration he quit training for five months.
He returned to compete “very badly” at the 2011 Daegu World Championships, where he threw a modest best of 71.99m to place 35th out of 36. Nonetheless, the experience of competing in a world-class field reignited his passion.
“I threw in the same group as Andreas [Thorkildsen] Tero [Pitkamaki] and Matthias [De Zordo], he says. “I was very happy competing against them. One day I hoped to throw like them.”
Despite battling an elbow injury, he performed better at the London Olympics, throwing 77.35m for 29th.
The breakthrough came in 2013, when he threw a PB and a national record 83.62m to place second in qualification at the world champs in Moscow.
“It was a big surprise for me,” he says. “I did not expect to throw 83m. It was a morning session and as an Egyptian I am used to going to bed late at three or four am, so I didn’t sleep much. It felt like a dream.”
He finished seventh in the final with 80.94m, but he was elated with his efforts.
“My aim was to reach the final, so I was very happy,” he says.
El-Sayed won at the Conti Cup in Marrakech with 85.44m
El-Sayed returned to Finland at the tail end of 2013. He spent three-and-a-half gruelling months training under the stewardship of Piironen, hopping between the base in Kuortane and South Africa. His training load was doubled and included gymnastics training and more specific technical work for the first time in the Egyptian’s career.
In 2014 he unleashed nine of the ten longest throws of his life. His year finished with victory in the Continental Cup, but throughout the season he had excelled on the Diamond League circuit. Wins came in Paris and Shanghai, the latter with a mighty world leading 89.21m, elevating him to 13th on the all-time list.
“Shanghai was a big surprise for me. I thought I could throw 85m or 86m, but 89m was like, wow, what is happening?!”
Since Shanghai he has become a household name in his homeland. He hopes his accomplishments, as well as those of his compatriot Mostafa Elgamel, the 2014 world number three hammer thrower, can help invigorate athletics in Egypt.
“Now a lot more people are interested and understand javelin and hammer,” El-Sayed says. “My hope is many people will start training across all events in track and field.”
In the shorter-term, El-Sayed’s main goal is to perform with greater consistency in 2015, though his coach believes he can go even further.
“I want to throw 87m or 88m every competition and over 90m. I also hope to win in Beijing,” El-Sayed says.
“He [Piironen] says that I am still using 70 per cent of my arms to throw and 30 per cent of my legs.
“He says ‘If you change and you use 70 per cent of your legs and 30 per cent arms, you can throw 100m.’ I am not sure I believe that, but I will try.”