ROME: The founder of the Beirut Marathon has been awarded a knighthood by the Italian government in recognition of her work in developing and promoting sport as a tool for inclusion, empowerment and resilience.
In a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Beirut, Ambassador Nicoletta Bombardiere bestowed the honor of knight of the Order of the Star of Italy upon May El-Khalil, the president of the Beirut Marathon Association, which oversees the annual race.
The event has been held every autumn since 2003, and is one of the largest running events in the Middle East.
The marathon was accredited by the International Association of Athletic Federations in 2009, and thousands of people take part every year.
The knighthood, Italy’s second-highest civilian honor, is given to Italians or foreigners who have acquired special merit in the promotion of friendly relations and cooperation between the republic and other countries.
Bombardiere said El-Khalil “embodies a model of commitment and perseverance,” adding: “She has been able, through sport, to create opportunities for the younger generations, and to reach out to the different communities in Lebanon. A story of professional success, personal courage and public commitment.
“Sport is not only a tool for physical, but also for mental well-being, moral education and national reconciliation,” the Italian envoy added.
A local sports official, El-Khalil explained her initiative was for the marathon in Beirut to be “open to all, as an antidote to sectarianism.”
She has already earned several national and international awards for her work, and said she was inspired to launch the marathon after being involved in a near-fatal running accident. She was hospitalized for two years, had to undergo a long series of surgeries, with doctors warning her she would never run again.
Her resolve to recover from this personal struggle, however, led to the creation of an event that, each year, draws runners and fans from opposing political and religious communities together in a symbolic act of peace.