TRIPOLI - There were just five Libyan athletes in the delegation that walked out in London's Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremony. After 42 years of dictatorship, they want to "show they're proud of being Libyan" 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 Committee's headquarters in Tripoli, just a week before his trip to London. "Nine armed men stopped me as I was driving," says Elalem. "They 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." Elalem was freed on July 22. Three days later he joined the Libyan delegation that had flown to London during his custody. It's 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 1980's, Nabil Elalem was a nine-time national judo champion. "My career stopped overnight. In 1984, I was jailed for nearly a year," explains Elalem. "They searched my home and proved I was a political dissident. I was tortured." 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, that's where those who opposed Gaddafi's 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 "the situation was a bit less tense." In 2003, he was named President of the Libyan Judo Federation.
"The devil in an angel's suit"
At the time, the Olympic committee chief was a scary man, Muhammad Gaddafi, the dictator's 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 Paris' Champs-Elysées for driving 140km/hour, on the wrong side of the avenue, drunk.)
"Muhammad was pretty calm and he really loved sports," says Elalem. "But 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 team's trips. Our relationship was purely professional. Like many people, I felt like I was constantly under surveillance by security services."
For Saleh Sola, a footballer between 1976 and 1987 "Muhammad could be very spiteful and cruel. He was the devil in an angel's suit."
As coach of the national judo team, Elalem went to the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. "Athletes never pledged allegiance to the regime but it was impossible to say it out loud," he says. "There were no direct pressures on athletes because sports weren't a priority for the regime. Gaddafi didn't care!"
In the 1980s, the man who called himself "the king of all African kings" banned commentators from naming Libyan footballers because they were becoming popular. "On radio and on TV, commentators had to say "Number 5 passes to number 3 who kicks it to number 9," says Sola. It was absurd."
"Gaddafi did everything in his power to keep athletes anonymous," adds Fatouma Arebi, the table-tennis national champion in the 1980's and current treasurer of the national Olympic committee. "He wanted to destroy any form of patriotic feeling and our love of sports." In 1972, Gaddafi even decided to ban some sports overnight, like boxing. "He hated sports and celebrities," says Sola.
Athletes fighting against the regime
When the first protests kicked off in Benghazi in February 2011, a month after Tunisia's president Ben Ali was forced out of the country, Elalem felt "it was now or never." 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.
"I fought with the Tripoli katiba batallion, the one that freed the capital," says Ouerchefani, a weightlifting coach. "On the frontline there were footballers and many other athletes, Libyans athletes helped free this country!"
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 country's new flag is everywhere. Libyan athletes will take part in four events (judo, weightlifting, track and field and swimming.) "We don't really expect to win any medals at the Olympics. We just want to show ourselves to the world, to show we're proud of being Libyan and to remember the martyrs of the revolution," says Ali Elkeli, a weightlifter.
"When I think about our delegation walking with the free Libyan flag, I want to cry," Elalem said in early July. "I 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."
The judoka then took a long pause before adding: "Even in our cells, we kept the faith. As if we knew this day would come."
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Photo: Libyan Olympic Team