A picture may say a thousand words, but sport can be evolutionary

2007-11-24 00:00

There are as many reasons for competing in sport or running a marathon as there are participants in a competition, and every single reason is as valid as the next.

While the diversity of motivations may display the individual nature of running, the overall outcome and impact can far and away exceed the organisation’s expectations and objectives of the event. A picture may say a thousand words, but sport can be evolutionary.

This was certainly the case with last weekend’s Beirut Marathon, which attracted around 19 000 runners over the three distances of 5 km, 10 km and the full marathon distance.

To appreciate the enormity of the numbers, it is necessary to understand that Lebanon has a population of only four million and that prior to the inaugural event in 2003, road races were virtually unknown, with national marathon championships attracting not more than a couple of dozen runners.

Five years later, this has escalated to the point that 0,45% of the population descend on the capital towards the end of November each year to be part of the huge celebration that is “marathon day”.

An equivalent participation level in South Africa would require around 202 000 runners to line up for the Soweto Marathon, which also offers 5, 10 and 42 km distances.

Given that Lebanon is closer to the size of KZN, perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be the recruitment of 40 500 participants to the SA Marathon Championships, which will offer the same distances in Durban in February next year. The 2007 version of this event in PE only attracted around 2 500 participants.

As with South Africa, Lebanon has a two-tier economy with a vast differential of living standards and earning power between average and elite Lebanese communities. Not surprisingly, many of the shorter distance participants are given free entry through the ministry of sport in the same way that the five-kilometre schools challenge is a free entry event in all Nedbank Series races.

What makes the figures in the Beirut Marathon so outstanding is that it overcomes many other potential restrictions to participation.

The running and exercise culture is in its infancy, primarily as a result of over three decades of conflict, unrest and civil war. However, there’s been considerable change in the half decade since I first garnered quizzical looks as a solitary figure, exposed and obvious, in my running kit. The abnormality of this scene has faded, with individual, and even group, running a regular occurrence. The sport’s growth and increased level of commitment was emphasised for me three days after the marathon when spotting a number of individual runners out training in heavy rain showers.

Annually, three to four events offering distances of 5 km to 21 km and attracting around 10 000 participants are scheduled around Lebanon’s five regions to recruit runners to Beirut under the slogan “It’s my marathon … and I’m running for …”

Where once I was stopped, queried and treated with suspicion for measuring or marking kilometres along the road, today I am welcomed, encouraged, and feted in my progress through the suburbs in recognition that the measurement and painting of the blue marathon line is the precursor to another marathon weekend.

Building an aerobic sweat has not been a priority to the majority. A person has to be over 50 to remember a time when Lebanon was without internal political strife, struggle or civil war; consecutive generations have grown up without full resolution of problems that have regularly split Lebanon’s multi-cultured melting pot.

Yet the despair and uncertainty has evolved and camouflaged perhaps one of the country’s greatest attributes. In spite of typical Mediterranean emotional fever in debate, the Lebanese exploit a vast tolerance of individuality. They honour uniqueness and differing opinions.

It is an attribute that permeates everything and has become the oil to daily life in a society log-jammed on political and governmental levels.

While 19 000 individual heart-driven reasons provided the root motivation to the participants running and walking in last Sunday’s Beirut Marathon, the amalgamation of spirit, celebration and drive left no one in doubt of the pride and nation-building impact on Lebanon.

For 72 hours the political skirmish was knocked from centre stage, as the event was beamed live across six national and regional television stations. The race commandeered pinnacle position on front, middle and back pages; the single-minded actions of the tens of thousands in supporting or participating in the event brought political perspective to stagnation of progression at a macro level.

The Lebanese enthusiastically and universally embraced the event as an opportunity celebrating their individuality, their diversity and their cultural array. While each person’s single step took them one metre closer to their chosen finish line, their cumulative 200 million steps taken on Sunday was sufficient to literally and metaphorically encapsulate the tolerance, passion and potential of the Lebanese.

The unwritten message of the moment was evident for all to witness. A picture may indeed say a thousand words, but sport initiates evolution and that is sparked by each individual competitor.

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