TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi did not like sports stars because he feared they would draw the national spotlight away from him, and for a time soccer players could only be referred to on television by their number.
Nabil Elalem, executive head of Libya’s National Olympic Committee, said that, for decades under Gaddafi’s rule, athletes and sports officials put up with other forms of state meddling, as well as corruption, restrictions on travel and chronic underfunding.
“He didn’t like stars. For example, for a certain period of time you called the players by their numbers, not by their names,” Elalem said of the former Libyan leader, deposed last month by rebel fighters after a Feburary uprising
“Gaddafi didn’t know anything about sport. It’s superfluous. What’s it for? He’s willing to spend millions on terrorism, or to pay someone to write songs about him, but not sport,” he added.
Elalem now runs Libya’s Olympic body after its president Mohammed Gaddafi, one of Gaddafi’s sons, fled to Algeria.
Gaddafi’s family and inner circle controlled almost all of Libya’s most high-profile institutions and had interests in virtually all the most lucrative contracts. They also tightly controlled Libya’s oil wealth.
Corruption, nepotism and graft were rife.
“The main problem was people looking for personal gain. Corruption on contracts, for land, in imports .... Mohammed appointed people without qualifications. The qualification was ‘I know you very well, you’re part of my family or a friend’.”
There was also meddling in sport by one of Gaddafi’s other sons, Saadi, who was for a time captain of the national soccer team.
“In football sometimes Saadi will call you and say ‘Don’t play in that match, or don’t coach that person’,” said Elalem, who in the past headed Libyan soccer’s National Teams Department.
With Gaddafi and his sons gone, Elalem is optimistic Libya’s new leaders, the National Transitional Council, will pay more attention to sport, which he thinks can heal a nation scarred by war and divided between those for and against Gaddafi.
Libya’s 1-0 win over Mozambique in a soccer match last week, Libya’s first major game since rebel fighters took Tripoli, sent thousands of people into the capital’s streets, the crowds almost as large as those that welcomed Gaddafi’s downfall.
“Sport will be a very important tool to bring back harmony to the Libyan people. Libyans are crazy about sport, and we can send messages through sports to all Libyans to be united, to increase their understanding about teamwork,” Elalem said.
Sport could also rehabilitate Libya’s image, tainted by Gaddafi’s association with backing terrorism abroad, bringing years of sanctions and pariah status to his country.
Elalem hopes to send nine athletes to the London Olympics next year, and also aims to have Libya eventually host the Africa Cup of Nations and the Pan Arab Games.
“Gaddafi ruined our image overseas. Everybody links Libya to terrorism. We will show them the real face of Libya. We will focus on organising international events in Libya, to bring international athletes to see Libya,” Elalem said.
“We’ve reopened. We want to show the world. Come.”
(Editing by Barry Malone)