A modest structure on the outskirts of Tripoli's Old City looks
less like an Olympic training center than a grain storage
facility. Inside on a late Sunday afternoon, perhaps two dozen
men, most older than 50 and some wearing traditional Arab robes,
sit on metal folding chairs and watch a competition among the
best weightlifters on the Libyan team.
The room becomes silent when Mostafa Hashad mounts the platform
for his final lift of the day, a clean and jerk. Hashad, a man
with thighs the circumference of sequoias, looks like the
Olympian he used to be. After he performs a series of loud
motivational inhalations, however, matter prevails over mind.
"Aaaggghhh!" he yells, failing to complete the lift. Hashad
hurls the weights forward and then stomps from the platform and
out of the room as the onlookers offer appreciative, sympathetic
Moments later Hashad regains his breath in an un-air-conditioned
side room that serves as his no-frills personal training center.
Once, he tells a reporter from the U.S., he was an athlete on
the rise. At 20, he finished 11th at the 1992 Olympics in the
heavyweight division. Now Hashad doubts that he would rank in
the top 100. Injuries have impaired his career but not nearly as
much as the United Nations' travel sanctions against Libyans,
which have limited his opportunity to compete against the
The reporter, who has been invited by the government, has been
told that he is the first U.S. journalist allowed into the
Libyan Arab People's Socialist Jamahiriya (State of the Masses)
in 20 years. He asks Hashad if he derives any pride from being
the strongest man in Libya. Hashad, speaking in Arabic, selects
his words carefully, in part because he sits beneath a portrait
of Mu'ammar Gadhafi, the Libyan strongman and one of the most
feared and despised men of the 20th century. "I can lift more
weight than anyone in Libya," Hashad answers, his somber
expression belying the intended humor.
September 19, 1999
So why, at age 28, does he continue to train when he knows he
will never regain his status among the world's best? "There are,
you know, two men in Libya named Mu'ammar Gadhafi," says Hashad.
"One is that man whose picture you see on the wall, and the
other is the president of our Olympic committee. It's his
ambition to transform Libya into a name that is internationally
respected in athletics. That gives me renewed hope, and if my
participation can somehow help in sustaining that effort, then
I'll continue to train."
The elder Gadhafi, a former army colonel, led a bloodless coup
that overwhelmed the regime of King Idris in 1969. The younger
Gadhafi is 27, the age his father was when he initiated that
revolution. In Libya the elder Gadhafi is known as the Leader,
and his likeness appears on many walls--interior and
exterior--throughout the country. The younger is known as the
Engineer, and he's described by his colleagues as having been an
outstanding student. He earned a master's degree in computer
science from Al Fattah University.
Various officials of the Libyan Olympic Committee (LOC) who know
the Engineer say he is passionate about more than just
education. He wants to use sports to change his country's
reputation for terrorism, which led the U.S. to attack Libya in
April 1986 after the Leader was accused of ordering the bombing
of a West Berlin nightclub in which two American servicemen were
killed. In 1992 the U.N. imposed travel restrictions and
economic sanctions on the country after the Libyans were
implicated in blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie,
Scotland, in which 270 people died. LOC officials say that if
international sanctions against Libya are removed, if the Libyan
oil economy returns to its former robust state and if young
Gadhafi seeks a career in politics, the Engineer is destined for
a big role in world affairs. In the meantime he has a vision:
Athletics will become the opiate of the Libyan masses.
The notion that the word LIBYA might appear in neon on the
leader board of world sports seems preposterous, like the idea
of Guatemala's putting a man in space. Libya first participated
in the Summer Olympics in 1964, and it dispatched modest
teams--competing only in track and field, swimming,
weightlifting and judo--to five of the eight ensuing Summer
Games. The exceptions were in 1972, when Libya bypassed Munich
for unstated reasons; 1976, when it boycotted the Montreal Games
to protest the presence of the South African team; and 1984,
when for security reasons Libyan journalists were unable to
obtain U.S. visas to travel to Los Angeles. No Libyan has ever
won an Olympic medal. But the great Roman ruins at Leptis Magna,
on the Mediterranean coast about 100 miles east of Tripoli, show
that Libya has a colorful athletic heritage that goes back
before the time of Christ.
An arena that accommodated 12,000 people once rose in Leptis
Magna; it was completed around 1 A.D. and ruined by an
earthquake in 5 A.D. For centuries the city was buried beneath
sand, which explains the mint condition of its remains. In the
1930s it was rediscovered and painstakingly unearthed by
archaeologists. Today the arena is the showpiece of Leptis
Magna's stunning ruins.
Illustrations in henna and other dyes survive on the wall that
encircles the stadium floor. The drawings depict the kind of
action that appealed to fans in Leptis Magna. Picture an athlete
with the physique and skin tone of Lennox Lewis, clad in
competitive attire that might have suited Lance Armstrong and
armed with what appears to be an oversized weenie fork. The
athlete's opponent is a large male lion. According to the
expressions on the faces of both contestants, the lion is ahead
on points. Another stone wall adjoins the man-versus-beast
theater. According to the ancient drawings on the walls, chariot
races took place outside the stadium.
Elsewhere in Leptis Magna are two other sites apparently
constructed for sports competition. One is an empty swimming
pool whose dimensions closely match the measurements of pools
used for modern Olympic competition. The other is an expanse of
land used for unknown athletic events. It's approximately the
size of a football field and appears to be circumscribed by what
was once a running track. Some archaeologists think the area
might have been constructed by the Phoenicians, who preceded the
Romans in this part of North Africa by about 500 years. It's
possible, in fact, that athletic competitions in Leptis Magna
predated the ancient Olympic Games in Greece.
More tangible Libyan athletic events take place at a tripurpose
facility in Tripoli that was built in 1930 and is called October
the 7th Stadium. (Many public gathering places in Libya have
politically inspired names, as ordained by the Leader. October 7
is independence day in neighboring Tunisia.) This concrete
grandstand, which holds 5,000 people, has a 500-meter velodrome
surrounding a running oval that, in turn, encircles a soccer
field. October the 7th Stadium will soon be replaced by a larger
and vastly improved facility: Man-Made River Stadium, named for
an enormous system of underground conduits that transport water
from wells deep in the Sahara to agricultural regions closer to
the Mediterranean coast.
At October the 7th Stadium the reporter is introduced to a few
Libyan Olympic prospects. First: Zohair Mingawi, 19, a sprinter.
His personal bests in the 100- and 200-meter dashes are not
impressive. Mingawi has, however, a physique that suggests the
possibility of significant improvement in his times. Plus, his
countenance hints at an inner reservoir of willpower.
Second: bicyclist Mahran Rezaq alswaih, also 19, accompanied by
his father, Rezaq alswaih, who was a member of the Libyan
cycling team and is now the coach of the national team. "For
sure, I would like to represent my country in the Olympics some
day," Mahran says. "I go to school from 8 until 11, and for the
next four hours I train. During the first hour of training,
sometimes I experience what some people call a natural high. The
remaining three hours are what the afterlife might be like if I
do not obey the teachings of Allah."
The father stands at the finish line of the velodrome, holding a
stopwatch. Of course, he says, he would be thrilled to see his
son represent Libya at the Sydney Games in 2000. Then he
expresses a fonder wish: to be replaced as coach of the cycling
team by a European who has superior credentials.
Meanwhile, the Libyan women's track team, which has fewer than
20 members, prances in formation on the straightaway of the
running track. The women lift their knees to their chests and
let them fall again, up and down. It looks like a routine for
recruits at boot camp. Ibrahim Itiya is their coach. The
reporter asks him a cultural question: "According to the
dictates of the Arab tradition, shouldn't these women be at home
instead of exercising on this track?"
"According to our Leader's Green Book," Itiya replies, "health
and exercise performed by women are commendable things."
Gadhafi's Green Book, published in 1980 and translated into
several languages, lays out the Leader's philosophy on
government and family matters. The reporter scans the 120 pages
of an English edition, and the closest the book comes to
condoning women's track and field competition is this: "The
woman has played the role of the beautiful and gentle
involuntarily, because she was created so. In the animal, plant
and human realms, there must be a male and a female for life to
occur from its beginning to its end. They not only have to exist
but they have to exercise, with absolute efficiency, the natural
role for which they have been created."
The Green Book extols the concept of a sound mind in a sound
body, but it expresses deep dissatisfaction with the
ticket-buying sports fan. "The people who crowd stadiums to
view, applaud and laugh are foolish people who have failed to
carry out the act themselves," the Leader writes. "Sport should
be practiced by all and not left to anyone else to practice on
their behalf." These thoughts appear to be out of sync with the
Engineer's plan to transform the perceived face of Libya from
that of a terrorist to that of a sports star. Heroes can't be
heroes without cheering fans, who, typically, crowd stadiums.
Ahmed Alkoat, a member of the LOC, attempts to reconcile the two
seemingly opposed views. "I agree that sports is for the
masses," Alkoat says. "This isn't new." Like most members of the
committee, Alkoat was a college contemporary of the Engineer's.
He's seated in the lobby of the Mahari Hotel, which has
balconies overlooking the breathtakingly azure Mediterranean.
"But when games are played," he continues, "some players are
better than others, and the ones who are better, some of them,
desire to excel, to win. So we want to drive them and give them
assistance that will provide hope of becoming the best. Without
that, what's the sense of competing? The Engineer has assigned a
financial prize to the champions of various sports. A day in
April has been designated as a day when various Libyan athletes
will be recognized, given awards, and one of them will receive
As Alkoat finishes, another Libyan Olympic official approaches
with welcome tidings. "Hop in the car," he says, "and we'll go
see the Engineer."
Speeding through the streets of even the most cosmopolitan
sectors of Tripoli, a visitor will note many things inconsistent
with the modern world. If you're looking for McDonald's or Pizza
Hut, go to Cairo. The only golden arches a visitor will find in
Tripoli were built by the Phoenicians around 5 B.C. The
official's Honda Legend rushes through heavy traffic and arrives
at a building that bears the interlocking Olympic rings on its
facade. While several security men offer disinterested glances,
the reporter is led up three flights of stairs to an anteroom.
There he is detained for 12 minutes before being taken along a
hallway and through a room that overlooks the soccer field and
velodrome of October the 7th Stadium. En route somebody points
out that it is past 9 p.m., that the Engineer has had a long day
and that this will be only a get-acquainted session, a prelude
to a formal interview that will take place at another time.
Mu'ammar Muhammad al-Gadhafi introduces himself. Moderate
height, slender build. He wears a close-cropped beard. If the
Engineer were the son of practically any other head of state and
were he dating someone with blood ties to the British throne,
the tabloids would tout him as exotically handsome. He doesn't
seem to resemble his father, although that's difficult to
ascertain because the Leader, who apparently has an endless
array of headgear, never looks the same in any two photographs.
The Engineer sits at a desk adorned with a computer screen the
size of a JumboTron. The most prominent decoration in his office
is a large portrait of his father. This likeness of the Leader
appears to maintain eye contact with a visitor no matter where
the visitor sits or stands.
The Engineer is single but engaged, and he says he hopes to get
married soon. He says this through an interpreter, Adel Serrag.
The Engineer speaks and understands English, the reporter has
been told, but he uses an interpreter to give himself extra time
to formulate his responses. The Engineer isn't compensated for
his work on the Olympic Committee; he derives his income from an
associate professorship at Al Fattah. Right now, he says, he
lives with his mother. So why, at this stage of his life, would
he choose to take charge of the country's Olympic program, a
challenge that seems to be thankless?
"Believe me, it wasn't my idea," he says. "I was pushed into it
by many of my friends on the committee. This is an enormous task,
greater than I anticipated, and I took it on at the expense of my
personal life. I wanted to make up for the losses of the last 10
years, when Libya was absent from the international arena. This
absence had many reasons, but the main one was the sanctions
imposed on our country.
"The second reason I became active with the Olympic Committee is
my belief that sports is an important part of people's lives. It
plays a vital role in each society, and I consider it the basic
language that every country speaks and comprehends, the tool of
communication between people and civilizations of the world.
Sports is an effective tool for public relations. Through
meetings and visits among the youth of the world, we'll give a
truer picture of Libya, and counter and remove the picture that
is painted by the Western media. I'm sure you saw things here
that you weren't expecting to see, and for sure you weren't able
to find some things you expected to find. We will try our
hardest to utilize sports as a positive avenue."
What the reporter has seen is that a vast percentage of the male
population under 30 seems to be perpetually involved in pickup
soccer games in almost every vacant area in Tripoli, beneath the
gaze of the Leader, who appears on nearby murals. The reporter
decides to move to another topic, one not related to the Libyan
Olympic effort. "So," he asks, "what's it like being the son of
No interpreter is needed for this question; response time is
less than one second. "I can't say my relationship with my
father was 100 percent normal, due to the social environment and
his heavy work schedule, and I admit that I didn't enjoy the
normal relationship of son and father that other children
experience," the Engineer says. He glances at the dozen or so
men in his office--Olympic officials, bodyguards; it's
impossible to determine who is who--and continues, "People have
a certain image of me before they meet me. But from the first
moment they meet me, they discover that I am a simple person.
Maybe even simpler than the average man. It was important for me
to live among people, whether it was in school, at the
university or in any gathering. I never had any complexes. I
never viewed people as different from me. On the contrary, I get
annoyed when people treat me as someone very special. I get
annoyed with protocols. I get annoyed when I walk with guards
around me. I always try to fight and change this environment.
"I remember how, during my senior year in high school, my name
and status affected me in a negative way. I studied diligently.
I was determined to have the highest score [on the equivalent of
the SATs] in Libya. However, when the final grades were posted,
I found that I was fourth in the nation. I felt that my ranking
should have been higher and requested to have my exams
reevaluated. They discovered that they'd made a mistake and that
I was number one in the country. However, they told me that
since I was the son of you-know-who, I could not be first.
Because of my name, they insisted on making me fourth. For a
whole year I was upset about this incident."
All of a sudden the Engineer decides to call it a night. He
instructs the reporter to return in two days. Tomorrow has been
set aside for a 370-mile journey deep into the Sahara.
About four hours out of Tripoli, a few kilometers southwest of
the city of Ghudamis, the olive-tree orchards that line most of
Libya's coast begin to disappear. Soon virtually all vegetation
vanishes, as does evidence of human life. Farther into this
moonscape, the only plant life is small tufts of gray-green
weeds, called sha-al, which camels enjoy nibbling. Upon arrival
at Ghudamis, the reporter and his escorts abandon their cars for
four-wheel-drive Land Rovers (no air conditioning) for the final
stages of the hegira to the great dunes. The entourage has
arrived in the heartland of the original Silicon Valley.
For the ensuing three hours Mingawi, the sprinter, runs the
dunes, up and down, leaving his footprints in the virgin sand.
No world record is broken this day. That, of course, refers not
to track and field but to temperature; today's high will be
reported at 129[degrees], seven short of the highest temperature
recorded on earth, in 1922 in another part of the Libyan Sahara.
After the workout Mingawi grasps one of the many dozens of empty
plastic water bottles that now litter the desert and fills it
with sand. Perhaps he intends to keep it as a memento of the
day's events, a talisman that will always remind him that
however discouraging the going becomes, things could always be
The reporter spends the final night of his Libyan experience in
the Engineer's workplace: not the office that overlooks October
the 7th Stadium but a tower of the latest architectural design,
a building you might find in a Sun Belt metropolis. The Engineer
occupies a corner office. One window provides a vista of the Old
City; another faces the Mediterranean. A gigantic full moon
shines a star-spangled pathway across the sea.
Tonight the Engineer wears a silk shirt that is the darkest
possible shade of green, the color of the Dallas Stars' road
uniforms. He is also clad in khaki pants and brown shoes, each
with two buckles. Unlike at their initial meeting, which was
held with a crowd in attendance, the Engineer and the reporter
are alone except for the interpreter. The reporter soon learns
that the Engineer, while eager to provide a better image for his
homeland, isn't about to lavish praise on the Western mass media
or upon the foreign policy of the U.S.
Question: Your father has been widely identified as a terrorist.
Are you hurt or saddened by these descriptions?
Gadhafi: I am never alarmed by lies. We have a saying in Libya
that the caravan is moving ahead and the dogs are behind
barking. Cheap talk that comes through the air, vanishes in the
air. I never get excited over it. It doesn't affect me. It only
affects me if it is fact. If I'm walking in the street and
someone calls me names, I don't respond. That person is making
up stories to hurt me. In actuality he's the liar. He's the bad
Question: What kind of team will Libya send to the Sydney Games?
Gadhafi: The Libyan participation will be simple and symbolic,
because we're at the rebuilding stage. There will be only a few
Libyan athletes, participating in track and field and swimming,
at most. One sport Libya will never participate in is boxing. As
a child I was a fan of all sports, and the athlete I followed
most closely was Muhammad Ali Clay. At that time he was our
idol. However, as we grew up, we started thinking of boxing as a
violent sport, a savage game. In my opinion it's not suitable
for human beings. Boxing is prohibited in Libya. Maybe in the
future the whole world will reject this type of sport.
Question: In 1986, when you were 14, the U.S. bombed your
country, and your 18-month-old adopted sister died in the
attack. How do you feel about that event?
Gadhafi: Without any doubt, when a human being is asleep in his
house at night, and bombs are falling on his head, it will
affect him all of his life. It's very difficult for one to
forget this type of experience. It will be with me, and it will
be told to my children and grandchildren. I'm really sorry that
the world, with all its progress and civilization and
advancement in knowledge and technology, is still using force
and violence. We're even more sorry that a great country like
the United States still uses force to settle its disputes with
other nations, such as Libya, Iraq, Sudan and Yugoslavia.
Question: How will you finance your effort to rebuild the Libyan
Gadhafi: In the past, sport was neglected in Libya because
officials in the government felt there were other priorities,
such as health and education. My goal is to be self-sufficient,
where we do not take money from the government. Without
mentioning budgets, about 95 percent of the financing of Libyan
sports is already privatized, and I want this to be 100 percent
soon. We are allowing advertising, and we have all kinds of
signs and billboards when we have competitions, and TV will pay
for live telecasts of certain events. We are looking forward to
the day when U.S. companies will be allowed to come to Libya and
participate with us in rebuilding and reshaping our sports,
whether through construction or advertising or any other vehicle
that will help sports in Libya.
Not long after the Engineer says that, the interview ends, along
with the reporter's trip. The law of entropy remains the most
immutable yet humanly resisted rule of physics. So the world had
best prepare itself, because in one year a young man named
Mu'ammar Gadhafi will march with his little team into the
opening ceremonies of an event purportedly devoted to peace and
The remains of the Roman Empire can be found in the lost city of
This day's journey is into the eerie summertime expanse of the
This reporter has been told that he's the first U.S. journalist
in 20 years to enter Libya.
"I consider sports as a basic language that every country
speaks and comprehends."