Amodest 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 applause.
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 world's best.
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.
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.