Dec 23, 2011 | Sapa-AP
TRIPOLI - Athletes and sports programmes in Libya were woefully neglected during Moammar Gadhafi's four-decade rule. With Gadhafi's regime toppled last month, Libya's athletes and sports officials are hoping for a better future.
Oil-rich Libya has never won an Olympic medal and ranks near the bottom in sports competition with other Mediterranean countries that had far fewer resources, including neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
"Sport, as a social activity, must be for the masses," Gadhafi said in his treatise, The Green Book. "It is mere stupidity to leave its benefits to certain individuals and teams who monopolise them while the masses provide the facilities and pay the expenses for the establishment of public sports."
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 football player, to invest heavily in sports.
"Sports was not a priority for Gadhafi," Eleman said. "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 on October 20.
On a recent sunny afternoon, several Olympic hopefuls met for the first time in months at Libya's main track at a rundown sports centre in the capital Tripoli.
Mohamed Khawaja was stretching on the sidelines. The 400m 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 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 57m in training in Tunisia at the beginning of the year. However, his personal best in competition was 55.19m last year, way off the 63m 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.
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 US and a 50m 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 Italian league team Perugia.
Like other dictatorships in the Middle East, the Gadhafi regime tried to control football 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 does research at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
For example, Libyan broadcasters could only refer to players by their numbers, with the exception of al-Saadi, to ensure a degree of anonymity, Dorsey said. Still, Libyan football 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.
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 centers, adding that sports will be a key to rehabilitating thousands wounded in the war.