Image grab from the Beirut Marathon
© Beirut Marathon Association
Image grab from the Beirut Marathon
Cornelia and Houssam Zeineddine
Last updated: April 17, 2013

Escaping Lebanese sectarianism through running

Running brings us together, such activities are beneficial for the delicate situation of our country.”

It is no secret that Lebanon bears the scars of on-going conflicts and that the divisions run high. High cost of living, dependency on remittances – the work force in diaspora can provide better for households in Lebanon than those in the country – and continuous sectarian strife are all part of the country’s reality.

There is also a massive brain drain while residents attempt to invest and secure status through artificial image enhancement. Lebanon has one of the highest per cent per capita of women who undergo plastic surgery at some point in their lives. The explosion of plastic surgery in the last decades reached the point where banks began offering loans for beauty enhancement.

In such a climate, one would not really assume that the Lebanese take time to invest in the natural uplifting of the body by practicing sports – especially given that the Arab lifestyle is known as sedentary and, according to recent health studies, for over-indulging with fast-food.

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But in 2002, Mrs. May al Khalil, a member of an influential business family, decided to take the lead and founded the Beirut Marathon Association (BMA) to promote sports. A runner herself, she dreamed of bringing running culture to Lebanon.

The BMA started to promote running and the benefits that it gives to the body and mind. In addition, it widely spreads a message of peace and conciliation. The organisation’s events are not tainted by the well-established sectarian rhetoric of the Lebanese society, and the aspiration is to bring people of the different communities together.

However, there are pervasive problems for runners in Lebanon, despite the efforts sparked by a number of organizations. The poor sports infrastructure and refractory nature of some people lead to harassment of runners – and obviously women are not spared.

Runners are forced to run in unprotected places, such as main roads without clear delimitation from cars and motorbikes. Running in the streets, main roads, hilly alleys can affect the training capacity and bring a lot of injuries.

Furthermore, sports education in the country is very poor, and those of us who run do it according to our innate senses with little exposure to professional training. Information about what to eat and how to avoid injuries only reach those who actively want to be informed.

Another problem is that many of Lebanon’s sports associations suffer from the sectarian tide that overwhelms the country. BMA is not political at all, and keeps a diversity message, however, political connections are used in almost all federations to obtain aid or subsidies for competitions. It’s all “Lebanized”, if you can call it that.

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There is more than one club where members can practice running in groups and take part in competitions. It is our belief that fellow runners in general do not care about religious orientation or politics. When asked, a number of members in The Elite Running Club said “running brings us together and such activities are beneficial for the delicate situation of our country.”

The Lebanese media does not help to raise awareness of sports. Media is for those clubs that have a good PR team and are well-connected through business channels. The Elite Running Club is the largest running club and nobody in the press cares about it.

One of our members, Ali Kedami, ran several races in the Racing the Planet series. Someone tried to write an article about his story, which was later dismissed by the newspaper’s hierarchy. It seems that if it is not about road blocks, sheikhs, wars, we do not like it.

Indeed, one might get a mixed feeling of the future of running in Lebanon. Attendance and participation in the Beirut Marathon continue to grow every year, and the event attracts the attention of national and international media. BMA gets media coverage and is actively involved. The Elite Running Club attracts more and more members for their regular trainings. They get positive responses for their calls, overall.

But with the intermittent meddling of the political in any aspect of the Lebanese society they do not have an easy call. At least people involved in bringing the projects to reality for a healthier, united generation can keep the Special Olympics’ motto in mind: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

Cornelia Zeineddine has written mainly academic papers on Lebanon, Gulf minorities and women's rights, which have been presented at the American University of Sharjah, Lebanese-American University and Cambridge University. This article was written together with her Lebanese husband, Houssam Zeineddine, a runner and member of the BMA Special Needs team as well as The Elite Running Club.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.

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