Sport in Lebanon: A Party Game

A fight between players and fans during a basketball game in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Ahmad Muhieddin

Published Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lebanon has no sporting map as such. Sports clubs reflect the sectarian makeup of different parts of the country, and by extension the influence of the political parties.

Because of this, each party’s officials in charge of sports are set to intensify their meetings with each other, which are aimed at allocating seats on the governing bodies of the various sports federations ahead of forthcoming elections.

The heads and members of these federations, though nominated by their respective parties, invariably insist that they believe in the maxim that politics should be kept out of sport. But the parties are well aware that in a country like Lebanon, attracting sports fans can be a means of attracting political support.

Patriotic Endeavor

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has been active on the sporting front since it was founded in 2000. Jihad Salameh was given charge of its sports section in 2008. He believes every political party should draw up a long-term plan or roadmap for sport. He says the FPM’s sports-related activities are linked to its broader responsibilities as a national party with a broad following and presence in parliament and the cabinet. The sports section is an active and dynamic part of the FPM, and its members cooperate over all issues. At the elections four years ago, it gained important posts in most of the country’s sports federations, or backed other successful candidates, and managed to get changes made at the National Olympic Committee.

Salameh says the FPM’s plans on the sporting front are threefold. First, to promote and encourage sports within the movement itself throughout the country. Secondly, to modernize relevant legislation, via the parliamentary and cabinet youth and sports committee (three draft laws have been submitted to parliament in this regard). And thirdly, to improve conditions for sport in Lebanon, both technically and administratively, and promoting transparency and competence.

Salameh says the FPM only backs candidates for positions in the sports federations if they meet certain criteria: they must have a long-term vision for the sport, plus a record of competence and commitment, and must not come from outside the sporting world but have a background in sports or experience of sports administration or fund-raising. They do not necessarily have to be FPM members.

Looking to the Future

The Future Movement says the same about the administrators it selects to represent it in the sports federations. Its coordinator for sports, Husameddin Zbibo, says the Movement seeks to develop sporting cadres through special training courses, as sports administrators are as important as players, and the development of sport is a long-term process. The Movement’s approach is that the right person should be selected for the right job, political quarrels aside.

Zbibo says Future’s attitude to sports is inspired by its founder, the late former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. “He always took an interest in the sporting aspect, both as a civilized face of Lebanon, and also because the development of young people is incomplete without sports,” he explains. The Future Movement’s sports policy is thus aimed at developing sports as a whole with a focus on youth development. “We believe that sports is an education,” which teaches values like discipline and competitiveness.

Hence the care Hariri took to rebuild sports facilities in Lebanon and arrange the hosting of important competitions such as the Pan-Arab Games in 1997, the Asian Cup football championship in 2000, and the Jeux de la Francophonie in 2009

Keen on Consensus

The Amal Movement has a strong presence on the sporting scene, and is represented in most of the federations. The head of its youth and sports bureau, Yousef Jaber, says its policy is to support anything that promotes and develops sport. It therefore takes a consensual approach to elections to sporting bodies. It has sought all-party consensus in past elections to the National Olympic Committee, though when that is not possible, a “sportsmanlike” contest must be the judge.

The public good comes first as far as Amal is concerned, because sports can only function when everyone cooperates and pulls together, especially given the importance of the sector and the meager resources the state devotes to it. Jaber urges all parties to put aside narrow self-interest and work together to draw up a comprehensive national policy for sports development, as well as lobbying for a bigger youth and sports budget.

He also says shortcomings in the sports federations and other bodies need to be probed and remedied in order to make improvements that will benefit everyone. Amal makes sure its nominees for membership of these bodies have the necessary experience and time to devote to their tasks, as assuming such posts is a responsibility rather than a reward.

Social Goal

The Lebanese Forces (LF) concur with most other parties in their youth and sports policies. The head of the party’s sports section, Boudi Maalouli, says the aim is to bring young people together and keep them away from the destructive practices that are rife in Lebanon. The party runs sporting clubs and activities, and also trains cadres to enable them to assume responsibilities in national sports bodies, in order to serve the goal of attracting Lebanese youth to sport and imbuing them with sporting values.

Maalouli says the party has relatively few qualified cadres of the kind at present, so will back allied candidates at forthcoming federation elections. But it will still seek to ensure that as many LF members or supporters as possible get elected in order to promote the party’s policies and ensure that things are run properly and openly, “not in corridors.”

The LF selects its representatives on these bodies in accordance with their sporting experience and record, and they must be focused primarily on sports rather than having other motives, he says.

Sporting Wing

The Homenetmen Club, which dominates the Armenian sporting scene, is effectively the sports wing of the Tashnag party, even though it includes non-party members and is part of a movement that since its establishment has been concerned with civic as well as physical education. It was founded in 1918 to care for orphans from the Armenian genocide, and the Beirut club was established in 1924.

The chairman of the club’s board, Hagop Kishishian, explains that its ultimate goal is to bring young people together and encourage them to become good citizens. Representatives of Tashnag or Homenetmen try to promote appropriate policies in national sports federations, in the electoral alliances they forge, and in the development plans drawn up for individual sports .

“Whoever agrees with our sporting goals is our ally, and choosing allies in sports has no extension into politics,” says Kishishian. He says Homenetmen’s representatives need to behave as role-models. They are selected in accordance with their sporting qualifications, and their performance is constantly monitored.

Matter of Duty

Hezbollah’s attitude is different to the others: it sees sport as a matter of duty and ideology, related to the building of society and its youth on a sound basis. It also deems sport to be of central importance politically, as a common language that can bring all components of society together.

Ali Fawwaz, head of public and media relations at the party’s sports mobilization section, details the approach it has taken: ”First, we sought to create a solid sports infrastructure for the party. This was achieved by the establishment of popular sports clubs in all the areas where we are present, followed by the building of modern sports complexes to meet the needs of the regions. They are there to serve the youth and help them become active elements in society, and keep them away from vice and crime, which are an enemy just as the Zionist enemy is.”

He adds: “We did not seek to gain a presence for ourselves in the sports federations so much as to develop sound sport via the clubs. We avoided electoral battles, and still do, because our approach is based on consensus.” Hezbollah’s representation in the federations “is in accordance with agreements, especially with our political allies,” he explains. “There is no need for disputes. We are open to everyone.”

Moreover, “Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah always reiterates that politics should be placed at the service of sport, not the other way round.”

Comeback Planned

The Phalange party has an old association with sports. Its founder, Pierre Gemayel, was chairman of the football federations. But things have changed since then.

The head of its sports section, Eddy Bouzakhem, says that the party seeks to use politics to serve sport, and that MP Sami Gemayel has a keen interest in sports and is an avid sportsman.

At present, the party tries to use its political contacts to assist clubs that are associated with or close to it and help them develop their activities. He concedes that the party neglected the sports sector for a while, but says attempts are being made to establish a strong sporting base and train cadres in the long term.

There are other parties in Lebanon which care little for sport. Some are long-established, but youth-related matters are not among their priorities.

There are also state officials who take an interest. They include Prime Minister Najib Mikati – who is patron of a range of sports clubs, especially in the North, through the Azm & Saadah Foundation – and Finance Minister Mohammad al-Safadi, who is particularly keen on basketball, as well as other politicians who support clubs rather than federations.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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