Gaby Issa-El-Khoury recalls his experience as an Olympian

Mohamad El Chamaa

Coach, Professor, and Olympian: these are the recognitions that Gaby Issa-El-Khoury, PhD, has come to acquire over the span of 30 plus years. Outlook sat down with him this past week to talk about his long and rich career, as well as to get his thoughts on the sports sector in Lebanon.

El-Khoury’s interests in athletics began when he was an undergraduate student in architecture at ALBA. For him, college life meant two things: studying and training afterwards. Throughout this time, the future Olympian began to break several Lebanese records in long jump with his first taking place in 1982. Unfortunately, the difficult economic situation the Lebanese Civil War placed on the country prevented him from working in his field of interest. That, however, afforded him more time to practice his passion and even coach at Notre Dame de Jamhour. When the Los Angeles Olympics came around in 1984, the prominence “Gaby” achieved in the long jump earned him a spot on Lebanon’s Olympic team.

The year 1984 was one of the worst years in Lebanon’s Civil War, but for Gaby, who was twenty-four years old at the time, and his teammates, the political tension did not negatively impact the relations the athletes had with each other.

“I couldn’t tell the difference between me and the other athletes, we didn’t have this fanaticism that exists today,” he said. El-Khoury upheld the pluralism and meritocracy of sports, so much that he sparked the ire of organizers when he nominated a person of a different sect – owing to the athlete’s potential to win a medal – to carry the flag in the Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. The head of the delegation ended up holding the flag in the end.

El-Khoury recounted that the Lebanese team had no money to work with.

“My father bought the tickets to Los Angeles,” he said. The accommodations were paid for by the host city. Luckily for the team, Beirut’s airport was open at the time of their departure and at the time of their return.

However, being part of the opening ceremony meant they never got to see it all unfold. “We were in a small stadium next to the main venue; we didn’t go inside until Lionel Richie finished singing.”

For the delegation, sports weren’t the only thing on their mind. “People would look at us as if they were asking: ‘What are you doing here? Your people are dying.’” El-Khoury and his teammates not only felt it was their responsibility to do their best, but also to project a positive image of Lebanon.

Some even wondered if the athletes could bare each other. “We weren’t as curious as them, in reality, [my roommate was] my buddy, we slept in the same dorm, we weren’t housed according to sect.”

Politics aside, the event itself was unlike anything Gaby had ever seen. “In Lebanon, at maximum you have one side of the track filled, but at the Olympics, you have 100,000 people looking at you,” adding that performing at the games was an out of body experience for him.

When the Olympics came to a close, life for the coach went back to the Civil War atmosphere. Throughout the remainder of the war, it was through sports competitions that El-Khoury could connect with his former teammates, owing to the difficulties the war had placed on free movement. The coach would go on to earn a PhD in structural engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 2010. Since then he’s gone on to teach full time at ALBA, and since 2015 has coached AUB’s track and field team.

As for the current state of Lebanese sports, El-Khoury believes there can be no progress in that arena unless a better infrastructure and more funds are available for aspiring athletes. He adds that AUB is in a special position to produce star athletes, due to the fact that students, on top f being well-equipped, are willing to learn and improve.

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