Perspective is a grand phenomenon...
This notion is reinforced in my mind over and over again with every experience which shaped my life.
Perspectives change, and things can seem completely different when cast in a different light... And no matter how rational and factional I convince myself I am, I remain subject to the angle of that light, and therefore my perspective changes...
This may sound philosophical and as related to endurance training and racing as your religion (if in doubt, this means there is NO relation!).
So why am I bringing this up? Well because I'm Lebanese. In fact, I'm one of those "typical" Lebanese who left the country a decade ago to "fulfill" my potential elsewhere. But herein lies the dilemma:
As I read the news about my home country day after day, month after month, and year after year, my perspective hardly changed! It's been a constant stream of disappointment, anger, sadness, and sometimes utter disgust and outrage. I know I'm hardly the only one; in that too I'm your typical "expat". In fact, I honestly cannot recall that last time a Lebanese expat had anything positive to say about our home country.
But a certain TED talk, a few Facebook posts, and certain billboards I saw on the roads during my last visit cast a different light on the country. Could this be the start of a shift in my perspective?
People often ask me: what's so great about triathlon and endurance sports? Why are you so "addicted" to it? For a while, I couldn't put my finger on it, until it eventually dawned on me:
Yes you get fit, yes you have fun, yes you get to travel and race in fantastic places, and yes you earn bragging rights... But honestly? For me? these are not the greatest rewards.
For me, the greatest reward is the unique community of endurance athletes. I repeat this over and over to my family, friends, and athletes I train: the greatest reward you get is building a network of friends who:
- Honestly don't care about your religion
- Honestly don't care about your race
- Honestly don't care about your citizenship
- Honestly don't care about what language you speak
- Honestly don't even care how fit you are!
- Honestly do want to help you get better, and want absolutely nothing in return!
Look at this picture. This is a picture of almost 150 people from all nationalities and religions coming together to honor one man, a Lebanese man, a man recognized as a leader on a national, regional and even international level, an inspirational man.
That is the spirit of endurance sports, that is the nature of endurance athletes, and if you want a poster for what "sport can do for the world", this is it.
But while I praised the sport in front of everyone who would listen, I honestly never really linked it to my home country:
at some level, I considered Lebanon to be beyond hope. With such deep-rooted religious, ethnic and political divisions, I considered the country beyond salvation, even through the power of endurance sports.
And my position on this was not without basis. I was involved in sports when I was in college at the American University in Beirut - I went and watched with pride the achievements of Lebanese athletes in basketball, martial arts, and other sports. But in hindsight, there was certainly nothing "uniting" about those events back then. Political slogans were front and centre, and while religious symbols were more covert, they were certainly present. Supporters were clearly segregated along religious lines.
So while I saw announcements for sporting events in Lebanon over the years, I never thought they would amount to anything positive "for the general populous".
... until a few months ago...
I visited my parents back in Lebanon. And as any triathlete with an upcoming race knows, training has to be completed rain or shine no matter where. So off I went:
I decided to take a cab to a point 20Km away from my parent's house and run back home. The cab dropped me off close to the famous Raouche rock on the Corniche, and my run would take me home to Achrafieh. That meant that the first 10Km would take me through what is considered a predominantly muslim area, with the second 10Km would be through what is considered a predominantly christian area...
And I was amazed: 2min after I started running, I switched my iPod off. People were greeting me every few seconds, people running, jogging, or just walking. People wore crosses or crescents. Women wearing tank tops jogging with others wearing head scarves.
I even burst out laughing out loud when I passed 2 older men playing backgammon on a flimsy table on the side of the road. One was wearing Islamic head gear, and he shouted at his friend: "George you've been cheating for 30 years and you will never stop cheating!".
They both turned to me and said "ya3tik el 3afieh ya ibne", loosely translated "may God give you strength my son".
Every few minutes, I saw people wearing t-shirts saying "Run for Lebanon".
My perspective started to change... slowly like a massive oil tanker, but it was perceptible.
Then I went back "home" to Dubai, and life took over and didn't think about it much again... until a few weeks ago.
I went back to Lebanon for my sister Tania's wedding (congrats again sis! very happy for you!!). Two things during that trip made a strong impression on me once again, nudging my perspective even more.
Maaser el Chouf
You see my sister's husband hails from a village in the Chouf mountains; a village that's 50/50 Christians and Druze. I don't know how bad things
between the 2 sides
during the war nor do I care to know. What I did see was how they were living now: living in this small village in harmony, working together, building their communities together...
After the church ceremony, my sister's wedding celebration took place in a beautiful municipal garden in the village. The next day, there was a celebration for a Druze wedding in the same garden.
The weekend coincided with the Rally of Lebanon passing through the village too, and I saw neighbors with their young excited boys from all walks of life standing next to each other on the side of the road watching loud and fast rally cars blasting through the streets...
As I was taking an early morning walk on that quiet Sunday, I saw a policeman standing on a street corner. He asked me "when do they start?". I had no idea what he was talking about, I thought he was referring to the rally - but no, he wasn't: he was referring to a local village 10km running race. Sure enough, 15min later I saw a stream of people in lycra running through the street. Some bouncing along, others huffing and puffing, but they were all obviously happy to be there. It made me smile... it was the only thing I could talk about all day... it was starting...
The second thing I noticed were the billboards. The drive from Beirut to the village took about 2.5 hours, and every few minutes, I would see one of these.
Now I know about the Beirut marathon - I've known about it for a few years. What I hadn't experienced yet was the sheer magnitude of this event's impact on the country and its people.
When I got back home to Dubai, I decided that maybe there was something emerging in Lebanon. Maybe the power of endurance sports could effect a change.
With the strain on the country from the catastrophe in Syria, the people need hope, something to hold onto, something as far from politics and religion as one can get...
So I watched May El-Khalil's TED Talk. I urge everyone to take some time and listen for yourselves (
May's story is inspiring, and her personal struggles and how she chose to turn difficult circumstances into something which touched hundreds of thousands of people cannot be praised enough.
What she said about the power of sport was not new to me. I knew that, I've experienced that. But what she said about "the power of sport in Lebanon" is what struck me the most.
It was no longer a slow lumbering turn in my perspective. It was no longer a nudge. It was a big wave which shoved that oil tanker in a completely different direction! There was hope after all.
There is absolutely no way you can politicize a marathon. It's impossible to split 30,000 individuals determined to run together through all neighborhoods, no matter their religious or political affiliations. Have you ever spectated an endurance race? It's infectious.
page and see for yourself! See how religious and political barriers are obliterated. Register (
) and run the race yourself. Whether it's the full marathon, the 10km or the fun run, toe the line and experience those shivers of excitement yourself!
I know I will, and for the first time in 15 years, the feeling which will carry me there will be that of PRIDE.