3 August 1956
On 3 August 1956, The Times reported that Billy Butlin, the owner of Bultins amusement parks and holiday homes, would not allow any Egyptians to participate in the annual cross-Channel swimming race he sponsored. The surprise announcement came a week after Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal. The Egyptian swimming team had arrived in Folkestone four days earlier on 29 June. They were full of hope since the previous year their strongest contender, Lieutenant Abdul Latif Abu Heif, had been the winner. In Egypt Heif was known as the ‘Crocodile of the Nile’, although his huge stomach and 95 kg weight more closely resembled the outline of a Nile hippo. In the 1955 race, despite a slightly choppy sea, he beat his closest rival by 17 minutes and won £1000 in prize money which he promptly donated to the seven children of a swimmer who had drowned the year before.1
It was difficult for Heif and the other Egyptian competitors to understand why they were being banned even on political grounds. Nasser had promised to fully compensate all international shareholders based on the closing share price on the day prior to nationalisation and to keep the canal open to all ships. He had also explained that Egypt was now legally entitled to use the annual £100 million profits from the canal that ran across its territory to improve the infrastructure and living standards of Egyptians.2 However neither Billy Butlin nor the British government, which promptly began to prepare for war despite public opposition, were appeased by Egypt’s reasons for taking charge of such a vital economic and strategic asset on its own land. No doubt, some were also aware of the dangerous propaganda implications if Abdul Latif Abu Heif, the generous spirited Egyptian swimmer, was to win again at such a critical moment of diplomatic crisis.
- ‘Channel Race Ban on Egyptians,’ The Times, 3 August 1956, p. 2 and Paul mason, ‘Heroes of Swimming: Abul Latif Abu Heif,’ The Guardian, 10 january 2014 accessed online on 9 January 2019 at url ‘https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-swimming-blog/2014/jan/10/heroes-swimming-abdel-latif-abu-heif
- James Barr, Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East, Simon and Schuster, London, 2018, p. 222.
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