Tripoli, Libya – Weekends in the upscale neighbourhood of Gargaresh, Tripoli, are marked by a show of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, wheels racing and engines roaring. On city streets, inline skaters dart and weave among fast-moving cars, apparently heedless of the danger.
It was not always this way in Tripoli, where the recent introduction of Western sports – from rollerblading and skateboarding to parkour and motorcycle racing – are changing the city’s landscape.
Late last year, a delegate from the Libyan Youth and Sports Ministry joined a smattering of young people gathered outside the Tripoli International Fairground, Africa’s oldest fairground. Young men clad in jeans and T-shirts launched into a series of challenging moves, skating along raised metal poles and leaping off ramps while dance music blared in the background. Some succeeded; others fell. The audience clapped and cheered.
The event, although small, was among the first official showcases of extreme sports in Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Since then, Libya has been struggling to rebuild its image as a country willing to open up to the outside world, as evidenced by the growing popularity of sports that were banned under the old regime.
We lost the sense of fear from bullets or weapons during NATO strikes.
“We lost the sense of fear from bullets or weapons during NATO strikes. I mean, in the beginning of the revolution, it was not obvious. We learned to get used to it,” said Taha al-Alem, a 19-year-old high-school student who practices extreme sports.
Shortly after the Libyan revolution erupted in early 2011, al-Alem says he began trying increasingly perilous skateboarding stunts “to lash out my frustrations of a besieged city”. One day, he was riding his skateboard while holding onto a friend’s motorcycle in a downtown Tripoli hotel parking lot, and he stumbled upon an iron bar protruding from the concrete. He careened to the ground, smashing his head and suffering a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage that left him in a coma for months.
Once recovered, the injury did not deter al-Alem: “I never wanted to stop, and continued to practise… despite several challenges.”
Extreme sports were introduced in Tripoli about a decade ago, athletes say, but at the time, few people paid any attention.
“Kids would practice then stop. A lot of them lost hope,” recalled Muntasser al-Zeidani, an 18-year-old Tripoli high-school student who became involved in extreme sports three years ago. “They were distraught because the government has ignored them.”
Officials from the old regime viewed sports and sporting events such as the X-Games, BMX riding, skateboarding and breakdancing as a “cultural invasion”, and such activities still remain ignored by many Libyans today, al-Zeidani told Al Jazeera. But he believes extreme sports are on track to start gaining profile, citing the recent second-place finish of Libyan athlete Mazen Mohamed in a Tunisian skateboarding competition.
“We want to revive this culture in Libya,” al-Zeidani said.
They appear to have a ways to go: In Tripoli, a city of more than a million people, participants estimate there are fewer than 300 extreme sport athletes, and the discipline is dominated almost exclusively by men. Still, about a third of the country’s population is younger than 15, giving this demographic a substantial cultural influence.
Libyans initially started exploring extreme sports through the Internet, spending hundreds of dollars to buy skateboards, grip tapes and other equipment online. Youths of modest means, like al-Zeidani, had to stop practising each time a piece of equipment broke, in order to save enough funds to replace it.
On the social side, extreme sports can foster close friendships and help youths get away from “bad habits”, such as drugs, al-Alem said. For al-Zeidani, the adrenaline rush is a key draw: “There are times when we do tricks that we have never practised before,” he explained.
music… It is like an art.”]
Late last year, a group of athletes converged to launch the Libyan Association of Extreme Sports, in what they hope will be another step towards broader recognition of the practise. Hafeed Dahmani, a 32-year-old Libyan-American with a background in sports medicine, said he took on the role of president upon the urging of young athletes.
“I hope I can make a difference in the lives of Libyan youths by empowering them through sport,” Dahmani told Al Jazeera.
Last year’s showcase event, dubbed “Libyan Skate Wheels”, was organised with support from the Youth and Sports Ministry and the Tripoli local council. Several dozen young men displayed their skills on skateboards, rollerblades and BMX bikes.
“Extreme sports are different from other sports because athletes portray their own style and personality, with an emphasis on the [accompanying] music,” Dahmani explained. “It is like an art.”
The Libyan Association of Extreme Sports, which remains in its infancy, will be seeking additional government support in the months ahead. Extreme sporting events help to keep young people “out of trouble” in the politically tumultuous country, Dahmani said. He is calling on Tripoli to create safer facilities for extreme sports, including designated skate parks, rather than leaving athletes to their own devices on city streets.
A spokesperson for the Youth and Sports Ministry said the government was assisting young athletes in various disciplines. But the government cannot provide funding for the Libyan Association of Extreme Sports, he said, until it is officially recognised by the ministry – a distinction the group is seeking.
Meanwhile, Libyan youths continue to practise in makeshifts parks and hangars, bolstered by a new sense of optimism that the country may finally be recognising the sports they have loved for years.