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LEBANON: A marathon for many causes

December 1, 2008 |  7:05 am

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For once, the slogans were not political. Tens of thousands of Lebanese rallied in the streets of Beirut on Sunday, this time to rally support for social causes, promote their companies and schools or simply enjoy a sunny weekend day with friends and families.

They gathered to run in Beirut’s yearly marathon. In any other country, such a race would merely be seen as a fun sports event. But in Lebanon, where the masses take to the streets mostly to commemorate a political leader’s assassination or to support a militant group, it was refreshing to see people from all sectarian groups stand side by side in a non-politically tainted occasion.

Mirroring the relatively stable situation in the country, the marathon put the spotlight this year on a  health issue rather than security and politics. The slogan: “With strength we run against cancer."

The event, which drew wide local attention, was also an occasion for organizations to spread awareness on a large number of topics, such as the hazards of cluster munitions, the dangers of drinking and driving, and children's rights.

Special attention was dedicated to disability, with many physically impaired athletes participating in the race in their wheelchairs. Richard Whitehead, a British disability activist who was born without legs, competed in the marathon with artificial limbs.

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In addition to the official 26-mile run with professional international athletes participating, there were also the shorter 3- and 6-mile “fun” competitions open to amateurs.

The event was epitome of Beirut’s diversity; some women wore head scarves, others preferred tank tops. 

This year, I decided to run the 6-mile race to raise awareness about migrant servants, one of the most vulnerable and ill-treated groups in Lebanon. With other runners, including foreign journalists and social activists, I wore a red T-shirt that read on the front, “Don’t run away from their rights” and on the back, “Support a day off for domestic workers.”

We started the race along the bustling seafront and powered past the commercial streets of Hamra and ended at the highly emblematic Martyr’s Square in Beirut’s downtown.

Another symbolic sports event on Saturday, branded as a mini-Palestinian Olympics, highlighted the plight of Palestinian refugees living in a dozen camps scattered around the country.

Through a series of soccer, basketball and volleyball games, the idea was to foster a spirit of unity among refugee children, who are often confined to the borders of their camp areas, according to officials from the Italian Embassy in Lebanon, which sponsored the event.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Top photo: Thousands of runners compete in the Beirut Marathon. Credit: Grace Kassab / Associated Press. Lower photo: Richard Whitehead, left, a British disability activist who was born without legs, competes during the annual Beirut Marathon. Credit: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

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