The Unifier: May El Khalil
May has harnessed running as a unifying force in a divided region.
May El Khali is all too familiar with the unrest those in the Middle East have endured during the tumultuous Arab Spring. Her own country, Lebanon, suffered 16 years of civil war that devastated its infrastructure and killed more than 100,000 of its people.
Long after that war ended (in 1991), conflict still shrouded the country. Disputes between religious groups, government officials, and militants threatened Lebanon’s stability, as did frequent cross-border fighting with neighbouring Syria and Israel.
Amid such turmoil, May, 55, saw an opportunity to promote peace and unity through running. In 2001, she began working to introduce running as an activity everyone could participate in, no matter where they fell on the political and religious spectrum. “I believe in the power of sport as a catalyst for change in society,” she says. The catalyst she created was the Beirut Marathon.
Ironically, her vision for the race came when she could no longer run. May was training in Beirut when a car struck her and pinned her to a wall. After undergoing surgery over 30 times, she was told by doctors that she wouldn’t be able run anymore. “I called my husband and asked him to start taking notes,” she says.
The inaugural event in 2003 attracted 6,000 runners from 49 countries; in 2011, more than 30,000 racers from 71 countries finished, and May and her team now assist small local races and also help community groups to start running clubs. In February last year, the Laureus World Sports Academy gave May its Sport for Good Award.
The group cited her efforts as a “triumph of the spirit and an example of sport rising above a hostile political environment”. As the Beirut Marathon continues to unite a fractured region, we couldn’t agree more.
Words: Debra Witt