BEIRUT: In the months leading up to the Beirut port blast, Lebanon was already going through unprecedented crises. From the protests of Oct. 2019 to the collapse of the banking sector, the devaluation of the currency and the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has faced relentless challenges throughout the past year.
“The explosion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And as I’m sure you have seen from the footage and carnage caused by the explosion, it was much more than just a straw,” said Sol Mokdad, CEO of Lebanon Rugby, a group established to promote the sport.
The explosion was a devastating experience for Mokdad. Although he survived the blast with no considerable damage to his property, many others were less fortunate.
“Seeing our capital in pieces and the tragic loss of life has taken a toll on all Lebanese citizens, in Lebanon and abroad. It was a challenge holding back tears for the first few days, just dealing with the trauma and the aftermath,” he said.
But Mokdad and his teammates knew they had to act quickly, joining the relief effort by instilling what they describe as the “values of rugby” into their community.
As a federation, the group launched the Lebanon Rugby Disaster Fund with help from one of their board members based in the UK. A GoFundMe campaign was set up to collect donations from the global rugby community.
At the time of writing, the campaign has raised almost £15,000 ($19,500), with the federation planning to donate the money to trusted relief organizations such as the Lebanese Red Cross.
The team also raised funds internally to support one of the players who lost his home in the blast. The amount needed to rebuild the house was raised almost instantly.
Lebanon Rugby players also contributed to the physical relief effort by volunteering to clear rubble, prepare food for displaced families and deliver medicine.
“Rugby Union is a beautiful sport, and the culture that it brings to its participants both on and off the field is unlike any other sport,” Mokdad said.
As football remains the most popular sport in the MENA region, courting a huge fan base, generous investments and billions of dollars in revenue, more niche sports such as rugby struggle to secure the resources they need to survive.
“When it comes to Lebanon Rugby and our efforts to develop Rugby Union in Lebanon, it has always been an uphill battle,” Mokdad said. The sport faces similar challenges elsewhere in the region.
Lebanon Rugby gained official status from the government in 2009 and is currently a full member of Asia Rugby and an associate member of World Rugby. Only six other nations in the region are members of the World Rugby Federation.
And the sport has built a successful community in Lebanon with little to no funding, relying on its volunteers and annual player fees to operate. Lebanon Rugby also runs a fledgling junior section with over 300 young people playing regularly at their schools and academies.
The fact that the region organizationally falls under Asia Rugby further complicates things for the sport in MENA.
“The challenges we face here are very different from a country like Thailand, which falls under the same banner. Asia Rugby covers a huge area, and efforts need to be made to split Asia geographically to be able to focus on specific regions,” Mokdad said.
While rugby may still be a long way from competing with more established sports in the region, recent achievements for The Phoenix, the Lebanese Rugby Union national team, in addition to local initiatives around the region, have already increased awareness of the sport.
Mokdad is hopeful about the future. “The formation of the Arab Rugby Federation, and the appointment of Qais Al-Dhalai — president of UAE Rugby — as the president of Asia Rugby has given a boost to development in the region,” he said.
This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.