Nationalizing the International: Lebanon and the Olympics, 1947-2008

By Andrea L. Stanton
Submitted to Session P2448 (Internationalism in the Twentieth-Century Arab World, 2010 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
One year after the French withdrawal from Lebanon, Gabriel Gemayel founded the country's National Olympic Committee (NOC). Gabriel Gemayel, like his brother Pierre a strong advocate of organized youth sports, joined the IOC as a member in 1952, serving several terms while remaining president of Lebanon's NOC until his death in 1987. Under him, the NOC promoted Lebanon's participation in the Olympics to the international community, promoted Lebanon to the IOC as the Phoenician ancestor and possible original host of the ancient Olympics, and promoted Lebanon to its neighbors as a leader in sport through competitions like the Arab Games and Mediterranean Games.

While Gemayel played a founding role in Lebanon's Olympic participation, one man could not have generated the commitment necessary to keep Lebanon's NOC active throughout the Civil War. These efforts began with the 1976 Olympics, for which a largely blockaded Lebanon recruited expatriates for the national team, and continued through the end of the war. More recently, the Olympics entered domestic politics through debates over former President Emile Lahoud, who competed as a swimmer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Although Lebanon has won only four Olympic medals (two silvers and two bronzes, for men's wrestling and weight-lifting), it has fielded a team for every Olympic competition except 1956, when Lebanon joined Egypt and Iraq in a boycott over the Suez crisis. This paper uses the archives and official publications of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Lebanese press to examine how the internationalist structure of the Olympics has and continues to serve primarily as a vehicle for Lebanon to promote itself as a global and regional player, domestically and abroad. It charts how the NOC under Gemayel advocated a prominent position for Lebanon in the Olympic community, translating this into regional prominence as founder and host of regional sports competitions. It also considers the meanings produced by Lebanon's continued Olympic participation during the Civil War, focusing on press coverage as indicating the national importance that Lebanese assigned these international events. When Lebanon's status as a nation-state was most in question, the Olympics provided a mirror through which the country could reflect a coherent image of itself to the international community and to its own citizens. Finally, it examines the politicization of Lahoud's Olympic participation following the Hariri assassination and the final part of his extended presidency, considering whether Lebanon's primary Olympic audience is now domestic.