In an old black and white photo, a boxer stands in shorts and a T-shirt: This “ambitious” boy is Omar Zlitni, before the dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi banned the sport he practiced and ran through his veins in Libya at the end of the seventies.
In Tripoli, the 63-year-old wants to show off this photo he keeps proudly and nostalgically in the background of his phone. In 1979, he was only 19 years old when Gaddafi banned boxing, wrestling and all combat sports. “We were a whole bunch, we had to play in Italy. Then all of a sudden, they banned boxing. Why?” Omar wonders frustrated. And the man in his sixties adds, “There were friendships, love, and boxing represented everything.”
Officially, the sport was considered extremely violent under Gaddafi, a regime accused during his 42-year rule of committing the worst atrocities: terrorism, torture, massacres of civilians and targeted assassinations.
For Libyans, the self-obsessed “dictator Muammar” saw individual sports with a bad eye, as they could produce “heroes” who would steal his limelight.
After the 2011 revolution that caused the fall of Gaddafi and his subsequent death, Omar Zlitni met his old friends. Together they revived boxing “through personal efforts” and re-established the National Boxing Federation.
Since then, Libyan boxers have shone in various competitions, like Malik Zinad, the local icon, who left for the UK and became very popular in Europe and the world over.
Lack of capabilities
Amidst the wasteland of Tripoli, under the roof of a tin barn, young men compete in an old arena, visibly dusty. The goal: to choose the players of the national team that will participate in the African qualifiers for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
Having become a coach, Zeltny laments the lack of support from government authorities, lamenting the rudimentary equipment in performing the exercises, which he and the former champions paid for from “their own pocket”.
But the former boxer expressed his happiness to see so many young people freely exercising their passion and “waving the flag of Libya” after Gaddafi in foreign countries.
Dozens of fans, seated on plastic chairs, cheer as a boxer fastens his gloves and fights his opponent passionately.
Inside the closed hall and among the crowd, a female face stands out, the girl whose name is Muntaha Al-Tohamy, a rare boxing in this very conservative country.
Muntaha, 25, says that her father encouraged her, after he immigrated to the United States at a young age to practice boxing.
Muntaha recounts her experience with a sport that is often reserved for men. “Among the girls of my generation, we did not know that others were practicing sports alongside them,” says the girl who came to support her companion with a laugh: “Even here, we are surprised to see a woman.”
And she added, “Being a woman, your gender does not prevent you from exercising.”
Perseverance and patience
Since 2011, various combat sports have emerged in Libya. And she reflected an exceptional passion, for example, by practicing kickboxing and Thai boxing.
Here, Omar Buhwiya is training on a special mat in a modern gym in Tripoli.
Wearing Libyan colored gloves and shorts, he works his abs with big punches and kicks with a punching bag, a sight he will share with his 14,000 followers on Instagram.
In 2013, this fan of action films “accidentally” came across a Facebook group dedicated to kickboxing in Benghazi (East), his hometown.
“This sport has allowed me to gain more self-confidence, release negative energies, feel responsible, and communicate more,” says the 29-year-old athlete, winner of several local and regional competitions.
And he admits that because of the backwardness of neighboring countries, “our level is still low.”
But “perseverance and patience” in recent years has already made it possible to “break prejudices” about Libyans, says the enthusiastic athlete Omar.
Omar dreams of becoming a world champion and concludes by saying, “Nothing is impossible,” referring to an aspiration from central Libya, which is full of chaos and instability.