BEIRUT: ” They were introduced to Lebanon as a means to unite people in the country, or in other words, to build a country.”
With these words, the secretary-general of the Canoe-Kayak Federation, Ali Awada, summed up the primary purposes of kayaking and rafting in Lebanon.
Although rafting emerged 15 years after kayaking was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1936, it was not until 1995, as a result of Awada’ s efforts, that kayaking and rafting were introduced to Lebanon.
” Why not in Lebanon?” Awada asked himself while living in France, ” particularly since there are many rivers, extending from Southern to Northern Lebanon.
” I came back in 1995 to discover Lebanon’ s rivers … and I wanted to come up with something that could unite the people after 20 years of war … I wished that people would uproot the idea of East and West Beirut.”
Awada, who was once the technical director of the French Olympic team, quickly realized that Lebanese rivers were well-suited for kayaking or rafting, with some even meeting Olympic standards
” Thank God, ever since rafting was in Lebanon, nearly 11,000 people have tried it and their number is increasing day by day,” he said.
In rafting and kayaking, Awada explained, ” the engine used is man’ s muscles,” so pollution is eliminated. ” If we do not respect nature, it will hurt us,” he said.
Equally as important for social well-being, in rafting, there is no discrimination between different classes.
” This is what we may describe as a social, and not a confessional, sport, since all people can take part in it.”
And indeed, when any competition is organized across the country, families of competitors gather and share food among one another.
” We all feel as if we are one family. … Intimate relations grow between rafters … I just hope that politicians do not interfere in this game so it remains creative,” he said.
Although introductory costs are relatively affordable – the federation charges $10 for the use of a kayak or raft – amateurs need to own their kayaks, one of which can cost anywhere between $600 and $700. Olympic-classified kayaks are more expensive, costing at least $1,200.
” Not to mention,” added Awada, ” that transporting kayaks to the destination is costly, since we have to rent a truck to do that.”
Despite the expense, as well as the relative newness of the sports, the national team recently participated in the Kayaking World Championships.
” All that we hope is that kayaking and rafting is covered more by the media to promote them both,” said Awada.
Emphasizing the importance of the sports in an emerging sector in Lebanon, Awada described how both could be integrated into so-called eco-tourist projects.
With both sports, he said, development projects could be set, particularly in those villages and towns where rivers pass – projects that would help to promote the preservation of the natural environment.
What’ s more, new opportunities could be made available if small restaurants were built near camping places, for example.
” In the end, we would manage to put an end to the rural exodus and improve the living standards of villagers,” he said.
” In this way, rafting is a combination of sports, tourism development and environmental (preservation).” However, Awada added, ” it is a pity that in Lebanon, there is not enough environmental awareness.”
Sadly, it seems, people in Lebanon are accustomed to throwing refuse in the river, thinking that the rubbish would drift away with the water.
” They do not realize that waste will be stuck somewhere down the river, which may cause a flood in the long term.”
Despite the apparent lack of government efforts to preserve the environment, Awada said the two water sports had received important moral support from the Sports and Youth Ministry. Minister Sebouh Hovnanian was deploying great efforts, he said, in coordinating the protocol signed between the Lebanese and French kayaking and rafting federations.
The protocol stipulates that the Lebanese national team trains in France for 15 days and vice versa.
In an effort to raise public awareness of environmental issues, 10 Lebanese universities participated in the fourth annual Rafting University Challenge, which took place this year on the Nahr al-Kalb River.
It was chosen because, although it is a historic site, a tremendous amount of environmental degradation has been inflicted on it over the years.
” The river no longer has a natural bank, since water parks have been built on it,” said Awada, who is also the head of Nahr al-Kalb Club for Kayaking and Canoeing. ” The river has turned into a pit of rubbish.”
Although unsure as to how far efforts may go in preserving the natural water environment that is so critical for the sports he loves, Awada was upbeat about the challenges that lie ahead.
Rafting and kayaking, he said, resemble life in Lebanon: ” We are all in the same raft, and we are trying to overcome the ups and downs of the river, which is similar to life.”
Copyright Daily Star