TRIPOLI - There were just five Libyan athletes in the delegation that walked out in Londonï¿½s Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremony. After 42 years of dictatorship, they want to ï¿½show theyï¿½re proud of being Libyanï¿½ under their new flag.
A white crescent and star centered on a horizontal tricolor of red, black and green was floating in the Olympic stadium. The five Libyan athletes at the London Games came out with their new flag for the July 27 opening ceremony. In the stands, Nabil Elalem, the president of the Libyan Olympic Committee, enjoyed every second of it. It was a historical event he had imagined thousands of times before and almost ended up missing.
The former thuwar (armed rebel) was kidnapped on July 15 close to the Olympic Committeeï¿½s headquarters in Tripoli, just a week before his trip to London. ï¿½Nine armed men stopped me as I was driving,ï¿½ says Elalem. ï¿½They covered my eyes and took me to an unknown place, probably on the outskirt of Tripoli. For a week, they questioned me about my past. It was very strange, hard to understand.ï¿½ Elalem was freed on July 22. Three days later he joined the Libyan delegation that had flown to London during his custody. Itï¿½s unlikely that his kidnappers were Gaddafi supporters. Were they militiamen still refusing to recognize the authority of the National Transitional Council? Were they just jealous of his success? No one really knows.
In the early 1980ï¿½s, Nabil Elalem was a nine-time national judo champion. ï¿½My career stopped overnight. In 1984, I was jailed for nearly a year,ï¿½ explains Elalem. ï¿½They searched my home and proved I was a political dissident. I was tortured.ï¿½ He was held in the Abu Salim prison in the south of the Libyan capital, where electrocution, beatings and acid burns were common. For decades, thatï¿½s where those who opposed Gaddafiï¿½s political regime were held. According to Human Rights Watch, in 1996 alone, 1,270 were executed there.
Once he was freed, Elalem went back to judo, won more titles but failed to qualify for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He fled to Asia, were he became the coach of the Malaysian team. After nine years away, he came back to Libya where ï¿½the situation was a bit less tense.ï¿½ In 2003, he was named President of the Libyan Judo Federation.
ï¿½The devil in an angelï¿½s suitï¿½
At the time, the Olympic committee chief was a scary man, Muhammad Gaddafi, the dictatorï¿½s eldest son, his only son from his first marriage. Born in 1970, Muhammad was also chairman of the Libyan General Posts and Telecommunications Company. He was very rich but also very shy, unlike his half-brothers Al-Saadi (a footballer in Italy until he was banned for using performance-enhancing drugs) and Hannibal (accused of beating his wife and their employees, arrested on Parisï¿½ Champs-Elysï¿½es for driving 140km/hour, on the wrong side of the avenue, drunk.)
ï¿½Muhammad was pretty calm and he really loved sports,ï¿½ says Elalem. ï¿½But given my past, I stayed away from him as much as possible. Our encounters were just about discussing the organization of the federation, the national teamï¿½s tripsï¿½ Our relationship was purely professional. Like many people, I felt like I was constantly under surveillance by security services.ï¿½
For Saleh Sola, a footballer between 1976 and 1987 ï¿½Muhammad could be very spiteful and cruel. He was the devil in an angelï¿½s suit.ï¿½
As coach of the national judo team, Elalem went to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. ï¿½Athletes never pledged allegiance to the regime but it was impossible to say it out loud,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½There were no direct pressures on athletes because sports werenï¿½t a priority for the regime. Gaddafi didnï¿½t care!ï¿½
In the 1980ï¿½s, the man who called himself ï¿½the king of all African kingsï¿½ banned commentators from naming Libyan footballers because they were becoming popular. ï¿½On radio and on TV, commentators had to say ï¿½Number 5 passes to number 3 who kicks it to number 9,ï¿½ says Sola. ï¿½It was absurd.ï¿½
"Gaddafi did everything in his power to keep athletes anonymous,ï¿½ adds Fatouma Arebi, the table-tennis national champion in the 1980ï¿½s and current treasurer of the national Olympic committee. ï¿½He wanted to destroy any form of patriotic feeling and our love of sports.ï¿½ In 1972, Gaddafi even decided to ban some sports overnight, like boxing. ï¿½He hated sports and celebrities,ï¿½ says Sola.
Athletes fighting against the regime
When the first protests kicked off in Benghazi in February 2011, a month after Tunisiaï¿½s president Ben Ali was forced out of the country, Elalem felt ï¿½it was now or never.ï¿½ He joined the rebellion, organizing clandestine operating rooms for injured rebels. In August that year, he took up arms and joined others to free the capital. The regime collapsed by the end of the month. Two months later, Elalem was elected President of the Olympic committee, in replacement of Muhammad Gaddafi who had fled to Algeria.
ï¿½I fought with the Tripoli katiba ï¿½ batallion ï¿½ the one that freed the capital,ï¿½ says Ouerchefani, a weightlifting coach. ï¿½On the frontline there were footballers and many other athletesï¿½ Libyans athletes helped free this country!ï¿½
Among the athletes who died for their country, was Ezzedine Belgasem, who competed in the Beijing Olympics in Taekwondo.
On the streets of Tripoli, the countryï¿½s new flag is everywhere. Libyan athletes will take part in four events (judo, weightlifting, track and field and swimming.) ï¿½We donï¿½t really expect to win any medals at the Olympics. We just want to show ourselves to the world, to show weï¿½re proud of being Libyan and to remember the martyrs of the revolution,ï¿½ says Ali Elkeli, a weightlifter.
ï¿½When I think about our delegation walking with the free Libyan flag, I want to cry,ï¿½ Elalem said in early July. ï¿½I think back to all those years of fighting, to all the blood that was spilled on our streets and in our prisons for 40 years.ï¿½
The judoka then took a long pause before adding: ï¿½Even in our cells, we kept the faith. As if we knew this day would come.ï¿½
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Photo - Libyan Olympic Team