Interview with Mr. Mohamed Ghannem, Specialized lawyer in Public International Law and Political Sciences and President of the Tunisian Taekwondo Federation.
He meets us in the hall of our hotel in Tunisi wearing an impeccable blue suit: a lean silhouette, with intense eyes. Tunisi may be considered as the center of the North-African world, the Maghreb, a word that stands for “the place where the sun sets” in Arabic, always a neuralgic center in the Mediterranean Sea as easy to reach both for the Europeans – no Visa is needed to enter Tunisia – and for the Africans and the Middle Easterners.
Tunisi is comparable with what Beirut was many years ago for the Middle East: a place where to meet people coming from every corner of the world and having the most varied interests.
Mohamed Ghannem is seen as a key figure in this country for all activities related to the world of sports, and we ask him about it.
I started doing taekwondo as a child. When I was 10, I became an orphan, so it was really important for me to have a discipline to follow. From a discipline, it became a lifestyle for me. The daily commitment, the physical training, the preparation, the confrontation with my opponents in matches, the study of the techniques. All of this also helped me along my academic path: today, I am an accomplished lawyer specialized in public international law and interested in my country’s and the world’s political affairs.
Over the years, practicing this sport and my role as the President of the National Federation have often taken me outside my country, allowing me to open to a world that is different than North Africa, to better understand different lifestyles and to learn how to be more helpful to our kids and our country.
What do you mean by this?
You see, since my appointment as the President of the Tunisian Federation, our athletes have increased from 3,000 to 30,000; the clubs offering taekwondo were 90 and are now 450. Today, taekwondo is the second-ranking sport for number of participants in Tunisia after football.
Within our Federation, we launched a youth development program that allows boys and girls to carry on their studies while training at elite levels. In this way, they can combine education with sport, which makes them less fragile in the face of tempting harmful lifestyles: the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs, as well as religious fanaticisms.
Tunisia is a Muslim country, but open to all religions. Our country has always been a renowned, welcoming tourist destination for all travelers, and we hope it will still be in the years to come. We are not producing oil or gas like other countries bordering the Mediterranean, so tourism, agriculture and services are the only resources we have.
This is why we need young, open-minded generations. Attending gyms and taking part in international competitions helps kids to break down the barriers of preconceptions on others.
How is the government supporting you?
We have inaugurated a collaboration with the Ministry of Education that has allowed us to use the abandoned spaces in public schools. There are 450 in the whole country. As of now, with the help of our many supporters, we have equipped 50 of them and we intend to continue.
In these spaces, the coach and the kids build a strong relationship together. Practicing sports, especially a discipline such as martial arts, helps to change one’s habits and to forsake the harmful ones for better ones.
This leads to an important exchange of relationships between the coach and the athletes that goes beyond the simple sport practice and continuously grows.
What are your plans for the future?
Last year, we held an Olympic qualification phase here in our country. Attendance was successful, over 150 delegations from different countries came to Tunisia. What is most interesting is that many of them discovered our beautiful country, its attractions, its tourist resources for the first time there. Many did not know Tunisia at all.
All of this was possible because of our work in the past years, which enabled two of our athletes to win a junior and a senior Olympic gold medal.
This made us even more visible as an emerging team in the world of Taekwondo and made it easier for us to be accepted as a host country.
We intend to organize more events of this kind, which automatically turn into economic development drivers for the whole local tourism and hospitality industry – hotels, restaurants, beaches, archeological and natural sites.
Today, the world is exposed to the risk of terrorist attacks. Do you think sport can do something to contain the danger in your country?
This question touches me deeply. In the past few years, our country managed to rise again from the damage caused to tourism by the 2015 terrorist attacks to the Bardo Museum and the Sousse Beach. Tunisia had dropped to the bottom of the rankings as an international tourist destination. Which is understandable, since no one chooses a hazardous location for their holidays. It is a bit like what happened to Sharm El Sheikh after the Russian airplane crash in Sinai.
Our government imposed exemplary punishments – 7 life sentences – to the offenders and strongly condemned their actions.
Within our Federation, we strongly believe that practicing sports keeps kids safe from alcohol, drugs and religious extremism. It is easy to understand why I am convinced that the development of our sport can be a crucial factor in protecting Tunisia. It is a laboratory for the innovation of our country.
Every new athlete joining our gyms is yet another bit of Tunisia that chooses a positive, modern, constructive approach to life.
As you can see, taekwondo has become my whole life.