Arab Spring states revel in renewed pride at Olympics

LONDON (Reuters) - For most Olympians, the Games are a chance to show off their rare talents. For the Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian athletes, they are a chance to show the world a new chapter in their history after the Arab Spring revolutions.

In Libya, former leader Muammar Gaddafi shunned sports figures because he feared they would draw the national spotlight away from him. For a time, soccer players could only be referred to on television by their number.

In Tunisia, the cradle of the revolutions, athletes were rarely chosen just for their sporting prowess. Their allegiance to the authorities counted too.

The Egyptians are keen to show that they too have managed to field a team despite the crises that have convulsed the world's most populous Arab state since the downfall of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak last year.

The eight-month NATO-backed campaign to oust Gaddafi after more than 40-years of iron fisted rule saw sporting activity grind to a halt. Thousands were killed and wounded, with some athletes taking up arms against the former leader, making training and fielding an Olympic team nigh on impossible.

Only four have made it to London. But it is a start.

"For Libyans who saw very tough times and felt life was over - the missing people, the wounded - sport, and our presence here at the Olympics is one way for our people to breathe," said Haffed Gritly, director of the Libyan Olympic academy.

"It's an indicator that normal life is back," he added, speaking in London.

The president of the Libyan Olympic Committee, Nabil Elalem, was captured by gunmen in Tripoli and held for a week this month, underscoring how difficult it has been to get a team to London in the face of the lawlessness that pervades after the months of conflict.

"Our delegation size was disappointing, honestly speaking. But we've been through tough times. For about a year there was no sporting activity, and it still hasn't completely returned," Gritly said.

Under Gaddafi, Libya's flag was plain green, but on Friday the Libyan Olympic team raised their newly re-claimed red, black and green colours at the opening ceremony - proudly taking their part among the Olympic family.


Young men and women rallied to the pre-Gaddafi era flag during the uprising, rebels raised it on the buildings they had captured and it fluttered from their poorly armed Toyota pickup trucks as they faced down government tanks and fighter jets.

"Leaving how well we do aside, the important thing was lifting the flag. As Libyans, we became very attached to the flag during the revolution - it was more than just a flag. So to see it raised in London was a huge thing," Gritly said.

Tunisia has fared better than Libya in fielding an Olympic team, with more than 80 athletes taking part.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after vegetable peddler Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide by setting himself alight in despair over poverty and government repression, provoking mass protests in Tunisia in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

"Athletes didn't have rights before, there was interference by those who were close to the previous regime .... They were chosen by the political class," Tunisian Olympic Committee President Younes Chetali said.

"The revolution gave the athletes a different momentum. Tunisia has a different meaning and the mentality has changed, for the country and the athletes," Chetali said.

"Now they feel free, and feel they have dignity."

Alaa Gabr, spokesman for the more than 100 Egyptian athletes taking part in the Games, said competing in the Olympics was an important message to the world, and other Egyptians, that their country could overcome its many difficulties and cope with change.

Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis on its slow path to a more democratic future, having held controversial presidential and parliamentary elections in the past year that have triggered sometimes violent protests.

"Even though we have problems in our country, taking part in the Olympics is very important for showing how far we've come .... The athletes' presence here shows that they are able deal with any change, in their lives or in sport," Gabr said.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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