Presenting a new Libya to the world

Mohammed al Rabti (C) leads the Libyan delegation in Doha

When 33 year old Mohammed al Rabti led a 140-member strong Libyan delegation with a broad smile across his face during the opening ceremony of 12th Arab Games in Doha on December 9, he was representing a new and free Libya to the world.

Walking next to the new Libya flag, which was adopted by the country after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, Rabti was also representing the struggle and sacrifices Libyans had to make during the eight months of civil war.

Having lost his left arm in the fighting against Gadhafi’s forces in his hometown Zuwarah in late August, Rabti, a former national rowing team member, was chosen to lead the delegation at the Games.

The Libya Olympic Committee (LOC) made this decision although there is no rowing competition in Doha for the 2007 Arab Championship silver medallist.

“We asked him to travel with us to Qatar, so that he could be closer to his brothers,” Nabil Elalem, LOC president and head of delegation, told Muscat Daily. “He is representing Libyans at the Games who are united, courageous and ready to make sacrifices for their country.”

Rabti isn't the only member of the contingent to have endured hardships under the Gadhafi regime. Many of the squad members in Doha fought for Libya's liberation while Elalem took over the role of LOC president from Mohammed Gadhafi, the eldest son of the dictator.

“It was not easy coming to these Games just after the end of war only two months ago. Many of our judo, taekwondo and even football team players were out there on the frontiers fighting Gadhafi’s forces.

"I was the field commander in my area in Tripoli. We started working underground under his (Gadhafi's) nose from March 2011; many of the wanted people, including athletes, went to the mountains.

"We were smuggling arms, medication and money through Libya by different roads. We sent money through the gold markets. But if the regime knew you were doing that ... that was it. It was very dangerous,” said Elalem.

One of the major losses the Libyan team suffered before heading to the Doha Games was the death of former Olympian Ezzideen Tlish. Having represented Libya at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics in taekwondo, Ezzideen died after being shot near a hospital on Mitiga Air Base in August while helping others who were injured.

It was an emotional moment for the Libyan taekwondo team on December 15 during the Games when Ezzideen’s younger brother, Mohammed, claimed the silver medal in 58kg weight class. Mohammed narrowly missed out on gold, losing 5-4 to Tamer Bayoumi of Egypt.

“We told Mohammed before he went out for the final, you need to do something for your brother. It was very emotional. We were both preparing, especially Ezzideen, for the London Olympics,” said Elalem.

Looking back on the 42-year Gadhafi era and the uprising that finally toppled him, Elalem said the Libyan people fought for their dignity.

“We did not take up arms because we were hungry, but we felt insulted under his rule. There was no constitution in the country, no system - only one man and his family was taking all the decisions,” said Elalem, who was a political prisoner for a year in 1984 during his college days.

“I was the National Olympic Committee CEO [from October 2010 to the fall of the regime] under the presidency of Mohammed Gadhafi. But the main pressure was coming from beyond him: The father, through him. He wanted competitions. How can I start asking people to organise competitions [when] our brothers are dying in the mountains, in Beida and Benghazi?

“Morally it was very bad. We were against him. How can we do these festivals and competitions to show that he is strong?” said Elalem.

“After the liberation of Tripoli, we discovered in the offices of one of Mohammed Gadhafi’s companies, in the second floor of the building, a list of people who needed to be 'eliminated' on their terms.

"It included me, the general secretary, Marwaan Maghur, and his family, the treasurer - at least 40 people - those in the central bank, in telecommunications. My name was between two brackets, and read 'rat'. He called the freedom fighters 'rats'. I told my friends, I am very proud to be a rat then.”

On his vision for sports in the country, which has never won an Olympic medal, the LOC chief said that Libya has to be realistic.

“I am not targeting London 2012 or Rio 2016. But we will start planning for 2020 Olympics from now. Sport has suffered a lot under the regime. There was no system and no infrastructure.

"We are a rich country and capable of developing the best infrastructure, better than our neighbouring countries in North Africa, which have a good record at the Olympics. And we will do it,” said Elalem.

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