LONDON — In March, when the International Volleyball Federation relaxed its rules on women’s beach uniforms “to respect the custom and/or religious beliefs” of all countries it hoped to include in its Olympic qualifying events, the change caused quite a stir. Would London’s Games be deprived of the once-required bikinis or swimsuits, now that shorts, sleeves and full body suits were allowed? The answer, as we’ve seen in the first four days of competition, is no. As long as the weather is reasonable, every female duo still prefers to wear bikinis. Although the sport’s governing body opened the door for Muslim women to at least consider playing beach volleyball, none of them are at the Olympics — nor have they made appearances in international competition.
With that reality in mind — as well as the way the Brits have viewed the goings-on at Horse Guards Parade through a hyper-sexualized lens, with even London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, writing about women beach volleyballers “glistening like wet otters” — one scene on the sand Tuesday was particularly striking. By late afternoon the beer-swilling crowd was partying in full force, bass-heavy anthems were booming through the speakers, and 13 dance-troupe members in retro swimsuits lined one side of the court for the emcee’s introduction of the Netherlands’ Madelein Meppelink and Sophie Van Gestel, wearing orange bikinis, and Australia’s Becchara Palmer and Louise Bawden, wearing green bikinis. In the head referee’s stand at center court, presiding over this global exhibition of skin, was a woman wearing her FIVB ref’s hat over a hijab.
Her name is Amina Elsergany, and she is, it turns out, the biggest trailblazer at this event. The 41-year-old English teacher from Port-Said, Egypt, is the first African, Arab or Muslim woman to ever officiate beach volleyball at an Olympics, and she sees no conflict in her religion versus her refereeing. “In Egypt, we could not dress like [beach volleyball players] do; it’s not allowed,” she said. “My religion says that I must cover my body, but as long as I do that, [what the athletes wear] is no problem for me.”
Elsergany was selected as one of 16 Olympics referees almost out of nowhere. She received FIVB certification at a refereeing school in Namibia in 2011 and only had 49 international matches of experience prior to the Games, although she had worked Egyptian events for 17 years. (The other 15 Olympic refs have an average of 788 international matches under their belt.) The FIVB’s head of officials, Jose Fernando Lopes Casanova, said that they made an exception for Elsergany in order to have referees from as many continents as possible. “It’s in line with the Olympic spirit,” he said. “There is a big importance in us expanding our range of referees, and I was happy to be able to assign her as the first African referee.”
In 1995, Elsergany attended a national indoor volleyball tournament in Egypt and was astonished to see a woman wearing a hijab working as an official scorer. “I went up to her and told her, ‘I want to be like you,’” she said. Six months later, the scorer helped Elsergany enroll in a refereeing course, and she started working local indoor volleyball tournaments before transitioning to beach, which she prefers. She kept her day job teaching English at Gawad Hossny Primary School in Port-Fouad, where her students tend to be amazed that she’s involved in sports — or, for that matter, knows anything about sports. She expects them to be slightly more amazed when they return from summer break and hear about her Olympic experience.
FIVB players, despite a few initial double-takes, have not voiced any concerns about having Elsergany work the Olympics. “It’s good for the game that she’s here,” Meppelink, the Dutch captain, said after Tuesday’s match. “It’s not about how you look, it’s what you like to do, and if she likes the game, let her enjoy it.” Aside from having to diffuse one argument by threatening the Dutch team with a yellow card, the only uncomfortable moment Elsergany had to endure on Tuesday was a set-break routine in which the grounds crew, which had been performing its raking duties to the Mr. Bean theme, switched things up and performed “Rake Like An Egyptian,” to the tune of The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian. It was a coincidence that it happened during Elsergany’s match, but it was uncomfortable nonetheless.
Elsergany remained stoic until the song ended, then blew her whistle indicating that play could resume. She was the anonymous director of the best show at the Olympics, at its most iconic venue in the heart of London. She said that she sometimes gets the feeling, in the referee’s stand, that she’s in the middle of a big action movie. The hope is that someone like her, back when she was 24 and didn’t believe she could participate in the world of sports, will spot her and get inspired.
“I want to be a good model for every Arab, Muslim, African lady who wants to be like me, because it’s amazing to be like this, at the Olympics,” Elsergany said. “There are women who are afraid to get involved. But when they see me, I think they will come in.”