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Posted: October 18, 2016:  

Athletics: The Beirut Marathon: Putting Lebanon on the Sporting Map

By Paul Gains

One hundred and fifty six women lined up for the Rio Olympic marathon August 14th and among them was a 32 year old Lebanese who could hardly contain her pride.

Chirine Njeim took up running just as her career as a downhill skier was winding down. Three times she competed in the winter Olympics before wearing the Lebanese flag in Rio. That marathon race earned her a distinction which only a very select few athletes can boast: being both a winter and summer Olympian.

Asked from where she drew inspiration to become a runner she says it was her sister’s performance at the 2012 Beirut Marathon.

A year ago, to rapturous applause, Chirine was the first Lebanese woman to cross the line in the 2015 Beirut Marathon something her sister Nesrine achieved three years earlier. On November 13th she returns to the IAAF Silver Label race as a four time Olympian.

Njeim has lived in Chicago with her husband since 2012. In January she beat her own Lebanese national record with a time of 2:44:19 in Houston, which earned her that summer Olympic berth. Returning elicits precious memories.

"My sister started running before me and she did the Beirut marathon three years ago," Njeim explains fondly. "Running wasn’t something big in Lebanon; I never really paid attention to it. But when my sister first ran, and was the first Lebanese finisher, I was kind of switching from skiing. Part of me was like, it would be fun to go to Lebanon and run a marathon, and that’s when I definitely got more involved."

While the event has inspired her to become an individual success she also speaks with glowing pride about her ‘hometown’ race and the effect it can have on the Middle East as well as people’s perception of Lebanon.

"For Lebanon to be able to host a marathon this is something huge," she declares. "Most of the time when you see people gathering in Lebanon it’s because something bad has happened. So having a marathon with people being on the street for a happy reason it means a lot to me.

"Also running is not a huge thing in Lebanon. But it’s slowly growing. So being able to go to Lebanon and represent my country and be a role model for all the young kids is huge to me. May El Khalil has been doing an amazing job bringing people over there."

Njeim is not alone in her praise of the Beirut Marathon President and founder. Indeed, this is the 14th annual Beirut Marathon and its origin can be traced directly to Ms. El Khalil’s initiative. Her story is astonishing.

While out training for a marathon fifteen years ago she was hit by a truck and rushed to hospital. She was in a coma and endured two years of operations.

"That was a turning point in my life," Ms. El Khalil recalls. "After waking up from a coma I realized I was not going to be the same person I used to be; But instead of pitying myself or asking ‘why me?’ I decided to turn this problem into an opportunity and set a higher objective for myself. And that objective was, in case I couldn’t run myself, why not come up with an event or do a marathon in Lebanon, where others could run and connect Lebanon with the outside world.

"So setting that objective definitely was a cognitive thing for me to recover and, during the two years of operations, I was working on the marathon. In 2003 we had the first international marathon."

El Khalil and her long serving crew approached Lebanese-American athletes representative, Hussein Makke five years ago for help in raising the event’s profile. In that time the Beirut Marathon has been rewarded IAAF Silver Label status a sign that it is a world class event.

"The main reason for getting involved is my belief in their mission along with their dedication to making a difference in a country that suffered more than thirty years with division, war and conflict," Makke says.

"The biggest difference I have noticed is the level of professionalism. The elite program has become elevated to be one of the most professional run programs in the world. Their focus on developing the road race community in Lebanon has also been tremendous."

Makke points to the ‘542 program’ which has developed first time marathoners. The Beirut Marathon provides five coaches to work with individual registered runners to prepare for their first marathon. From humble beginnings the program has grown to include more than five hundred runners this year. They will join thousands of others on the streets to celebrate peace.

Meanwhile it is with a great deal of excitement that Chirine Njeim returns to Beirut next month. A year ago she crossed the line with deafening applause from the finish line crowd.

"I am excited, I am ready for it," she admits. "I know it’s been kind of a long year. It will be my fifth marathon I am excited to be there and support all the young athletes and be a role model for them.

"My mum and dad still live there and my two brothers. It will be nice to see them. My sister will also be running the marathon and it will be fun to run with her."

There were tears of joy when Chirine Njeim represented Lebanon in Rio and no doubt there will be more tears shed when she runs Beirut next month. Thanks to the establishment of this marathon other Lebanese will be able to follow her onto the international stage.

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