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 an automobile."