In a potentially groundbreaking move, the women’s world squash champion will win more money than her male counterpart this year.
This week, the world’s best female squash players will compete for a first prize of $48,640 out of a purse of $430,000 at the CIB PSA Women’s World Championship in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
The men’s world champion will win $45,600 from a pot of $335,000 in Doha, Qatar in November, according to the Professional Squash Association (PSA).
“I’m proud to be part of such a sport that is driving this change,” said Egypt’s Raneem El Welily, the world No.1. “It is very rare to see in any sport. We are breaking stereotypes and breaking boundaries.”
Gender pay equality is an increasingly dominant issue in world sport, highlighted recently when the World Cup-winning US women’s national football team filed a gender discrimination law suit against US Soccer over unequal pay.
A 2017 BBC report found 83 percent of sports surveyed pay men and women equally in terms of prize money, but combined with discrepancies in sponsorships and endorsements, tennis star Serena Williams is still the only woman on the Forbe’s 100 list for top earning athletes.
In squash, the men’s and women’s world championships are sponsored by different companies which contribute the respective prize monies at their own discretion. The title sponsor of the women’s event, Egypt’s Commercial International Bank (CIB), has added an additional $100,000 to this year’s purse. The men’s CIB Egyptian Squash Open will be held alongside the women’s world championships this week with a pot of $185,000 up for grabs.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for the women, and for once we will get the bragging rights,” said world No.3 Nour El Tayeb, who is also Egyptian and is married to the men’s No.1 Ali Farag. “I think this is recognition that we also bring value to the game. It might not always be the case because of different sponsors in the future. But for now, it’s great to see.”
El Tayeb and Farag made history in 2017 when they became the first married couple to win a major title in sport on the same day, lifting the US Open within hours of each other.
That triumph in Philadelphia embodied the dominance that Egyptian squash enjoys. All of the top four men in the world are Egyptian with another two rounding out the top 10. In the women’s rankings, four of the top five represent the North African powerhouse.
Few nations rule a single sport like Egypt does squash.
“It’s a question I get asked the most,” Farag said when quizzed on why his country is so dominant. “It’s multifaceted. We have an attacking style of play that is the dominant philosophy in squash right now,. We have dedicated youth coaches. Maybe most importantly, most of us are located in Cairo which means we can train regularly against each other and push each other to new heights.”
This glut of champions has not translated into mass appeal. The sport is largely inaccessible to the majority of the population. Rackets and equipment are expensive, as are the private clubs that house maintained courts.
Former president Hosni Mubarak, who was arrested and imprisoned following the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, was an avid supporter of the sport and helped facilitate the staging of a tournament in front of the pyramids.
This association between squash and Egypt’s most iconic symbol was solidified in 1999 when local hero Ahmed Barada helped his country clinch a 3-0 victory over Wales at the Men’s World Team championship.
But football remains the pastime of the masses. With the rise of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, who Farag likened to a “deity” in the minds of Egyptian sports fans, that is not likely going to change.
“The average Egyptian knows that we dominate and that brings them pride, but they don’t necessarily know who we are or when the tournament is,” El Welily explained. “I have been saying for a year now that we need to get squash on free to air television.
“We have 15 tournaments a year and you can confidently say that there will be at least two Egyptians in every semi-final and even final. That might not always be the case. We need to be more progressive and take advantage of this period of strength. Sport exists in cycles and we might not be on top forever.”