body-container-line-1

Libyan Olympic hopeful defies war, patriarchy and adversity

By Jihad DORGHAM
Libya Al-Sayeh first picked up a discus in primary school.  By Mahmud Turkia (AFP)
SUN, 14 JAN 2024 LISTEN
Al-Sayeh first picked up a discus in primary school. By Mahmud Turkia (AFP)

Under the watchful eye of her father, Libyan Retaj al-Sayeh practised discus throws near the edge of a dilapidated running track at Tripoli's Sports City.

Despite injury, a patriarchal society uninterested in women's sport and disruption from Libya's chronic insecurity, Sayeh has set her sights on this summer's Olympic Games in Paris.

She has won numerous national and continental medals from a young age, and although Sayeh is yet to reach the standards required to qualify for the Olympics, the 23-year-old remains unbowed.

"I believe in my own abilities... which will take me to the top," she said confidently as she warmed up.

Libya has been wracked by fratricidal violence since the 2011 revolution that toppled Moamer Kadhafi, while there is little funding for, or interest in, women's sport.

"I challenge myself... despite the adversities and difficulties in Libya, but above all the lack of resources," she said.

First medal

Rain or shine, Retaj has been training relentlessly in an abandoned area of the Sports City strewn with debris, under the proud gaze of her father, who coaches her.

Al-Sayehtrains in a derelict section of Tripoli's Sports City.  By Mahmud Turkia (AFP) Al-Sayehtrains in a derelict section of Tripoli's Sports City. By Mahmud Turkia (AFP)

Once done with her warm-up and after a moment of stillness, she whirled in circles and hurled the discus, which lands a few dozen metres away to applause from her father.

Sayeh is set to take part in a competition in the UAE in February, then in June at the African Championships in Athletics in Cameroon, where she hopes to break her personal record of 57 metres (187 feet).

To qualify for Paris, she must hit a minimum distance of 64.5 metres. The bronze medal-winning throw at Tokyo 2020 was 65.72 metres.

As a child, Sayeh showed promise in a discipline that traces its origins to the ancient Greek Olympics and requires strength, technique and endurance.

Aged 10, she won her primary schools discus competition, and by the time she was 12 she had a bronze medal from her first international competition in Qatar.

'Limited resources'

Her father, Salem Sayeh, a former volleyball player and captain of the Libyan national team in 1982, has been ever-present in her career.

"My father believed in my abilities and constantly supported me," she said, sitting next to him by the running track.

Salem al-Sayeh coaches and mentors his daughter.  By Mahmud Turkia (AFP) Salem al-Sayeh coaches and mentors his daughter. By Mahmud Turkia (AFP)

"He always devoted his time, his financial support and his energy to me even when I almost threw in the towel," she said.

"He kept telling me that I was a budding Olympic champion and that nothing should lessen my determination.

Despite a lack of resources, her 60-year-old father is bent on persevering alongside her, convinced that she can compete at a higher level.

"My family and I will continue to support Retaj despite limited resources because she has tremendous potential to establish herself internationally," said the father.

His daughter, who has just recovered from back surgery, said she was up for the challenge despite years of uncertainty.

"In 2016, I went through a difficult time that made me think about retiring," she said.

"Because of the war, I could not get a visa to participate in the Junior World Championship in Poland. I was very sad because I was convinced that I could win gold. I was at the peak of my abilities."

She was persuaded, however, by her loved ones and fellow Libyan athletes to change her mind and went on to win a silver medal at the African Championships in Algeria in 2017.

"Thanks to God, my Olympic dream will become reality," said Sayeh as she embraced her father.

body-container-line