DUBAI: Lebanon’s contemporary history, its political turmoil, and seemingly endless economic troubles, have forever cast a shadow over its participation in the Paralympic Games.
The country, that first sent a delegation to Sydney in 2000 but then missed out on Athens 2004 and Rio 2016, now sees a comeback with Arz Zahreddine’s participation at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
The 22-year-old is Lebanon’s sole representative at the Games as he competes in the 200-meter T64 category, which takes place on Saturday.
Zahreddine lost his leg in a car crash at the age of three, and his childhood and teenage years were marked by bullying and the consequences of the accident.
However, he said: “Losing a leg is not a disability, sitting on the couch is.”
Zahreddine took up sports at the age of seven, starting with fencing. “I felt the need to challenge myself more and to do more,” he added.
After winning silver and gold medals in the sport between 2012 and 2017, he turned to running, inspired by American (T44 Paralympic) sprint runner, Jarryd Wallace.
Zahreddine only started his Paralympic career two years ago. At the Grosseto 2019 Grand Prix in Italy, he came first in the 200m T64 event and second in the 100m T64 to secure qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. During the same year, he finished eighth in the 100m T64 at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.
The challenges he faces daily at home are not limited to those related to the accident, but also to the country’s current failure to provide basic needs such as water, electricity, and access to healthcare and education — never mind providing a solid sports infrastructure with a focus on people of determination.
In the absence of government backing, Zahreddine found support from his family and Beirut Power Hub to help create an ecosystem enabling him to train and build up his performance for Japan.
“Arz doesn’t have a disability, Arz is talented”, said Jean-Claude Bejjani, the hub’s founder.
Believing that “the only disability is in one’s mind,” Zahreddine has now turned his disability into a message of hope. An anti-bullying advocate, he has participated in awareness campaigns run by UNICEF, and The Focus Fund at AUBMC, among others.
The journey leading to Tokyo threw up many challenges, not least the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which limited his capacity to train.
Zahreddine pointed out the importance of maintaining a positive mindset and finding adequate support throughout, including working with a sports psychologist.
Maintaining and improving his mental health remains a work in progress in the aftermath of last year’s devastating Beirut port explosion. The traumatic incident was followed by a series of financial challenges for Zahreddine, as well as uncertainties as to where and how to train given that he lost access to his gym as a result of the blast.
The socio-economic situation in Lebanon has only worsened since, with the recent collapse of the Lebanese currency and fuel shortages raising talk of a failed state.
Zahreddine said he had a responsibility to represent Lebanon, “giving hope to the youth of the country and aspiring athletes. Despite all the obstacles, we still have a lot to achieve.”
In Tokyo, he will dedicate his performance to the victims of the Beirut explosion.
After such a perilous road to the Paralympics, he can now finally focus on Saturday’s mission, and the chance to bring glory, and some joy, to Lebanon and the Arab world.