By KARIN LAUB
Moammar Gadhafi decreed that no one should be a star, and top athletes were woefully neglected during his four-decade rule.
As a result, oil-rich Libya never won an Olympic medal and ranked near the bottom in athletic competition with other Mediterranean countries that had far fewer resources, including neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
Nabil Eleman, president of Libya's Olympic committee, said he's expecting the country's new leaders, among them National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, a former soccer player, to invest heavily in sports.
"Sports was not a priority" for Gadhafi, Eleman said in a recent interview. "We are very optimistic now."
Eleman is setting his sights on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There's little chance Libyans will win medals in the 2012 Games in London, in part because of the eight-month civil war that ended with Gadhafi's death Oct. 20 left thousands dead, wounded and displaced.
On a recent sunny afternoon, several Olympic hopefuls met for the first time in months at Libya's main track at a rundown sports center in the capital of Tripoli.
Mohamed Khawaja was stretching on the sidelines.
The 400-meter runner won gold at the 2009 Mediterranean Games and the 2010 African Championships, but said Libya's war and lack of funding prevented him from participating in the 2011 World Championships in South Korea.
Still, the 24-year-old's personal best of 44.98 seconds is well within the 45.25-second qualifying threshold for London. Asked whether he believes he has a shot at a medal, he said: "Nothing is impossible."
Like other Libyans, he was bitter about the old regime.
"There was nothing called sports in the days of Gadhafi," he said. "They tried to kill sports. They had a committee to fight stars, not to let them shine."
Khawaja said he hopes Libya's new leaders will be different.
"At the same time, they need to start (making changes) as quickly as possible because we have a lot to catch up on ..." he said.
Discus thrower Ali Khalifa's spot on a Libyan Olympic team is less secure.
He threw 187 feet, 0 inches in training in Tunisia at the beginning of the year. However, his personal best in competition was 181-1 in 2010, well off the 206-8 Olympic minimum.
The burly 28-year-old said he trained only sporadically during the war. "I was hiding from NATO," Khalifa said of the alliance's bombing raids against regime-linked targets during the civil war.
His part-time coach, cafe owner Abdullah Jarhour, said Khalifa would now train twice a day for next month's Pan Arab Games in the United Arab Emirates. On Monday, the first day of training, Jarhour sat on a white plastic chair at the edge of the track and counted as Khalifa, looking a bit stiff, did stretches, lunges and forward bends with weights.
Other Libyans hoping to qualify for the London Games have gone abroad to train, in part because the country lacks facilities. The ongoing political turmoil and the social obligations of a close-knit tribal society also tend to be distractions.
Those training abroad include a half-marathon runner in Morocco, three judo athletes in Algeria, a taekwondo competitor in the U.S. and a 50-meter freestyle swimmer in South Africa, Eleman said.
Despite Gadhafi's apparent disdain for champions, two of the dictator's seven sons were closely involved in sports, as part of the ruling clan's policy of controlling Libya's key institutions.
Gadhafi's playboy son al-Saadi headed the Libyan Football Federation for much of the past decade and owned Tripoli's Al Ahli club. His terror-filled reign, including the trashing of rival Al Ahli Benghazi's clubhouse and arrest of dozens of the team's fans and players in 2000, helped earn him a spot on Interpol's most-wanted list for "armed intimidation."
Al-Saadi, who escaped to Niger during the civil war, also had ambitions as a player, using his money and influence to play in Libya and even, briefly, for the Italian league team Perugia.
Like other dictatorships in the Middle East, the Gadhafi regime tried to control soccer because of its popularity and potential as an anti-regime rallying point, said blogger James M. Dorsey.
"What made Libya different from others in the region was the fear that the players could become more popular than the Gadhafis, and al-Saadi's involvement and ambition," said Dorsey, who teaches at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
For example, Libyan sportscasters could only refer to players by their numbers, with the exception of al-Saadi, to ensure a degree of anonymity, Dorsey said. Still, Libyan soccer has survived the regime and last month, the national team beat long odds to qualify for next year's Africa Cup of Nations.
Gadhafi's eldest son, Mohammed, preceded Eleman as Olympic chief and fled to Algeria earlier this year with his stepmother, Gadhafi's second wife, Safiya, as well as siblings Hannibal and Aisha.
Mohammed was less-reviled than his notorious brothers and in recent years tried to get money for sports, Eleman said. Still, as a Gadhafi son, he instilled fear and insisted on special treatment, including monopolizing the gym in the track complex whenever he decided to work out there.
In 2007, Libya built a National Olympic Academy to evaluate top athletes and support their training, though its director, Haffed Gritly, now says he had to be careful at the time not to promote the Olympic idea too vigorously because the regime suppressed any movement seen as a potential rival.
This also applied to teams.
"Any team work might be dangerous. People might start to think in the same manner," Eleman said of the regime's thinking. That's why individual sports, such as judo, bodybuilding and horseback riding have generally fared better in Libya.
Eleman said he plans to secure government funding for sports, including for building high-level training centres, adding that sports will be a key to rehabilitating thousands wounded in the war.