Is the success of the Med games a new chapter for Algeria?
Just one day after celebrating a historic 60th anniversary of Algerian independence from French colonial rule, 40,000 Algerians of all walks of life packed into the newly constructed Miloud Hadefi Olympic stadium in Oran for the closing ceremony of the 2022 Mediterranean Games.
As with the opening, the bookend ceremonies were nights to remember.
Over the two spectacles, various aspects of Algerian culture were celebrated, including Touareg, Gnawa and Alaoui music and dance. Poignant odes to iconic local artists such as Ahmed Wahby and Cheb Hasni were also popular and tugged on the heartstrings of the spectators.
A tinge of prestige accompanied the occasion as a long list of esteemed guests such as the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, the Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay, and French-Algerian composer DJ Snake were in attendance.
''Just a few months ago, there were very real concerns about hosting the event. Last March, garbage littered the municipality of Oran which was in a standstill with contractors, the coasts of the city were rife with illegal immigration, and much of the infrastructure built for the Games was yet to be inaugurated.''
A salvo of neon fireworks blasted into the night sky as the games drew to a close, and a palpable sense of relief that all had gone to plan percolated in the air.
It had been a few decades since Algeria hosted a sporting event of the magnitude of the Mediterranean Games, which convenes 3,400 athletes from 26 countries every four years. And just a few months ago, there were very real concerns about hosting the event. Last March, garbage littered the municipality of Oran which was in a standstill with contractors, the coasts of the city were rife with illegal immigration, and much of the infrastructure built for the Games was yet to be inaugurated.
As the event approached, it was eminently clear that the Algerian government, and president Abdelmadjid Tebboune in particular, placed great importance on the success of the multi-sport event. By the beginning of June, public construction companies delivered the infrastructure boom promised for the staging of the Games.
The new solar-powered Ahmed Ben Bella international airport was finally operational, the Olympic stadium housing athletics and football was ready, as were the swimming facilities which were also on stand-by. Several new hotels were constructed, new roads were paved to decongest traffic, and the complete renovation of sporting infrastructure of the city was completed.
Tebboune's fortunes turning
After being elected in contentious circumstances back in 2019, Tebboune's mandate got off to a very complicated start. Public scepticism remained high as voters refused to participate in subsequent legislative and municipal elections organised by the government. In the following years he was criticised for failing to ensure oxygen reserves during the Covid-19 pandemic, failing to anticipate an effective response to ravaging forest fires last summer, and clamping down on civil liberties when systematically repressing weekly Hirak anti-government protests.
Yet since the war in Ukraine, Algeria finds itself in an advantageous position, especially vis-a-vis European nations seeking alternative sources of energy supply. The North African nation is the third-largest gas supplier to Europe, and rising oil and gas prices are expected to refill Algeria’s coffers after foreign reserves had begun to dwindle.
Domestically, Tebboune has reportedly covertly embarked on a “reconciliation” agenda, signing a decree to pardon protestors who “illegally assembled” and attempted to unify different members and parties on the political spectrum.
Hosting major international events has also been seen as a way for his government to increase its influence both at home and abroad. The Mediterranean Games were a crucial part of that equation, and later this year, the Arab League Summit set to take place on November 1st, 2022, in Algiers should garner even more attention.
Furthermore, the two events converged when it came to supporting the Palestinian cause. One objective of the upcoming Arab League Summit, for example, will be to unite the two Palestinian governing parties, Fatah and Hamas.
On the eve of Algeria’s independence, Tebboune invited Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh to one of Algiers’ presidential palaces, took the two men and joined them in a hand-to-hand embrace. It was an ambitious gesture as the two leaders had not publicly met since 2016.
In the sporting arena, both the Algerian athletes and the public also repeatedly displayed their
solidarity by brandishing Palestinian flags and singing the habitual “Palestine martyrs” chant that is ubiquitous at all sporting competitions in the country.
A new horizon
“There is a strong enthusiasm around these games, and we saw it from the opening ceremony where the tickets were sold out in less than 24 hours,” remarked Bernard Amsalem, the vice-president of the International Committee of the Mediterranean Games.
Algeria finished a respectable fourth in the medal table, with 20 gold medals trailing Italy (48), Turkey (45) and France (21).
The North Africans posted particularly impressive results in boxing, karate and athletics.
Light welterweight boxing champion, Imane Khelif, stole the hearts of Algerians, and cemented her reputation as one of the rising global stars in the sport as she toyed with her opposition in the ring.
Yasser Triki, a 25 year-old Algerian won gold in the triple jump and built on his strong showing at Tokyo 2020. Triki’s excellence was supplemented by the emergence of a new class of middle-distance stars which includes Slimane Moula and Mohamed Ali Gouaned.
Other highlights of the Games were the women’s 100m and 200m races which were won by Egyptian sprinter Bassant Hemida, who became the first Egyptian woman to ever win gold in those categories. Turkish freestyle wrestler Yasemin Adar, Italian weightlifter Antonino Pizzolato and Tunisian wrestler Marwa Amri were a few other marquee names that performed impeccably and were duly cheered by the raucous crowds.
Overall, the positive results of the 2022 Mediterranean Games indicates that there may just be a promising generation of Algerian athletes on the horizon that can remedy the woes of the country's previous showing at the 2020 Olympic Games where they failed to medal in any discipline.
In addition to the sporting success over the last two weeks, the legacy of these Mediterranean Games could very well be the celebration that spilled onto the streets of Oran.
Over the past year and a half El Bahia has benefitted from an uptick in popularity in recent years. Albert Camus’ The Plague, which is set in Oran, was one of the world’s best-selling novels during the initial outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not to mention, DJ Snake’s summer hit Disco Maghreb has amassed 50 million views in a little over a month of its release, reviving interest in Oran as the spiritual home of Rai music.
That trendy momentum of the city coinciding with the Games transformed Algeria’s second largest city into the burgeoning metropolis that it always had the potential to be, with a string of cultural events such as concerts, theatrical plays and fashion shows overlapped in a short period of time for both foreign and domestic tourists alike.
With state-of-the-art infrastructure and newfound swagger, Oran may very well prove to be the biggest winner of this year's Mediterranean Games.
Maher Mezahi is an Algerian football journalist based in Marseille. He has covered North African football extensively, with his work published in international publications such as the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, ESPN Africa and Al Jazeera English.
Follow him on Twitter: @MezahiMaher
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