With this year’s International Youth Day focusing on inclusion, we speak to IOC Young Leader Omar Bassyouni about how he is using table tennis to tackle inequality and improve accessibility for people living with disabilities.
Omar Bassyouni has been playing table tennis since he was five years old. For more than 20 years, he has enjoyed the many physical, social and emotional benefits of participating in the sport, and now his efforts are focused on ensuring that others can do the same.
As well as working as a development manager with the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) to help grow the sport, Bassyouni is also part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Young Leaders Programme. Supported by founding partner Panasonic, this initiative provides budding social entrepreneurs with mentorship, learning opportunities and seed funding to launch projects that leverage the power of sport to make a positive difference in their communities.
For Bassyouni, this means helping to promote inclusion and reduce inequality in his home town of Alexandria, Egypt, through the launch of Ramp-Up! – a table tennis academy that provides opportunities for people with disabilities to come together and practise the sport in a safe, accessible environment.
“I really wanted to support my community, because I have seen the positive impact in some European countries when it comes to practising sport for people with disabilities, and I really wanted to implement that same atmosphere here [in Alexandria],” he explains.
“We are providing table tennis sessions for people with all types of disabilities. We provide all the accessible equipment, an accessible venue, and sometimes we also provide transportation for those who have some challenges with travel. So, we provide all the necessary conditions for them to have the opportunity to practise the sport; the same opportunities as able-bodied people have.
“We want them to be socially included, not excluded, and this is why we created this atmosphere where everyone can practise table tennis safely, and everyone can feel that the opportunity is available to them, and it can actually change their lives.”
Bassyouni was inspired to develop his Ramp-Up! initiative through his work with the ITTF, having first seen the power of Para sport when attending the African Para Table Tennis Championships in Agadir, Morocco, in 2015.
“It was the first time I had seen Para table tennis,” he reveals. “The experience impacted me so much. I saw how sport could empower people, how it could change lives, how it could raise awareness and, most importantly, how it could fulfil dreams for many individuals. I had the chance to see how athletes with disabilities overcome all the challenges and difficulties they face, and successfully make the most of their lives.
“You could see the passion, you could see the motivation in the competition. It inspired me so much, and this is what I’m trying to provide for people in my community as well.”
Sport as a powerful tool to reduce inequality
Having seen first-hand the positive impact that table tennis can have, Bassyouni is a firm believer in sport’s ability to help solve pressing social issues, in particular those highlighted by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as reducing inequality.
“Sport is a very powerful tool when it comes to promoting the SDGs and supporting communities,” he says. “Through this programme, I believe we can contribute towards socially including everyone, and also raising awareness about the inequalities [in our society], because raising awareness is a very powerful tool here, as many people are not aware of the issues that people with disabilities are facing.”
The Paralympic Games as a catalyst for change
The continued growth of the Paralympic Games has played a key role in inspiring others to think differently about disability, with the Games often acting as a catalyst for change within host nations, particularly when it comes to improving accessibility and raising awareness.
With two years to go until the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, the event is already being used as an anchor to help the French capital become a more inclusive and accessible destination. Local authorities have also shared their ambitions around three strategic areas: improving accessibility, providing more access to sport, and getting people with a disability actively involved in city life.
These are all goals shared by Bassyouni, who hopes to have a similar impact within Alexandria and throughout Egypt through the growth of Ramp-Up!.
“I want to scale it bigger; I really want to reach everyone,” he says. “I want participation to increase, and I want to raise awareness. I really want to see each and every sport facility in Egypt become accessible.
“I want to see the accommodation for athletes become more accessible. I want to see the streets become more accessible for all users of wheelchairs. And I want to send this message to the community that we can just make small adjustments that will provide big opportunities for all the people with disabilities in my country.”
The IOC Young Leaders Programme
As he looks to expand the reach of Ramp-Up!, Bassyouni is thankful for the support he has received through the IOC Young Leaders Programme, which he joined as part of the 2021-2024 generation.
“The first year was mainly a research phase for our projects, and it helped me so much,” he says. “We attended so many expert sessions, which really supported my idea. At that stage, I only had an idea but, after that, I was able to put it into a social business form. The experts which the IOC provided really helped us a lot, and we received so much support from the IOC Young Leaders Programme team.”
This article was published on olympics.com.