BEIRUT: It could be a story like any other in Beirut: A building gets torn down to make way for new apartment block, history is lost in the process. Yet Beshara Abboud, a tanned, stockily built man who exudes vitality, is content to see the end of the grandly named Beirut Olympic Club Gym. Its founder, he says, wouldn’t be sad at all.
“While I was rebuilding this gym [in the early 1980s], I went to my father, angry and frustrated,” he explains. “I said, ‘I want to close it, I can’t be bothered.’ My father told me, ‘God has given you this chance to keep working with it. He will tell you when it must close.’ Inshallah.”
He shrugs his bulging shoulders and turns his palms to the ceiling.
“It makes me cry a little inside ... but sometimes you have to accept, it’s not for money, it’s a good lesson for me, for everyone.”
The decades-old story of Olympic, as it is affectionately known, begins with a series of snapshots.
Khalil, Abboud’s father, was active from a young age. While playing on a football pitch in Beirut, a 14-year-old Khalil met a man called Iskander Dobilic, either a Romanian or a Bulgarian (Abboud can’t quite remember) traveling around 1930s Lebanon with his circus.
Perhaps he was inspired by the fantastical feats he saw performed, or perhaps he was just intrigued by the spectacle. Either way, that was the moment Khalil decided to make sports his thing.
When World War II came around, Khalil refused to leave his country to fight elsewhere, and instead ended up training other soldiers being dispatched to North Africa.
Just keeping others fit was not enough, however, and in 1943 he commandeered a large tarpaulin military tent to be used for Greco-Roman wrestling competitions. Apparently enamored with the glory associated with ancient Mediterranean sporting traditions – a fascination he would pass on to his son – Khalil named the tent “Olympic Gym.”
Soon he had added weight lifting and boxing to his gym’s activities. In a picture taken at some point in 1943, the same year Lebanon would gain its independence from the French, some 34 young men jostle for space to show off their bulging pecs and swollen biceps. In the middle stands a 23-year-old Khalil, the proud new owner of a gym, and the only one wearing an undershirt.
The gym’s popularity soon prompted the Christian Kataeb Party, whose headquarters were just down the road from the Gemmayzeh-based tent, to offer to help him build a more permanent structure. This worked for several years, but eventually party concerns over the “diversity” of people coming to the gym caused disagreements.
In 1956, Khalil found a new location for the gym, just a 10-minute walk from his home by Em Nazih (the current restaurant and bar). Olympic is still in the same place today, tucked away in a small dead-end road off Pasteur Street, a stone’s throw from Martyrs Square with large bay windows that overlook the frantic Charles Helou Highway and the Beirut Port.
At the beginning, Khalil had only had two pieces of gym equipment.
Today, every inch of the long, airy room is packed with clunky metal contraptions, relics of another time. Many of the cast iron weights for the dumbbells were specially made and are engraved “Olympic Gym.” The walls are dotted with lurid instructive diagrams and aspirational photos of men doing various bodybuilding exercises, every muscle on their taut bodies bulging obscenely.
Almost lost to the Civil War, Olympic was saved when Abboud took over the reins from his father in 1983 after years of shuttling back and forth to the U.S. By that point, the gym had been closed for a while. Defiant during the first few years of fighting, the brutal Hundred Days War of 1978 had finally forced Khalil to shutter the place.
“No one wanted me to start it [again],” he says, smiling. “Behind this building were four containers to block the view from the snipers. ... It was dangerous for people to get here, yes. When we heard the snipers going, we knew someone was coming.”
He gestures around at the empty gym, the room filled now with nothing more than the background hum of traffic. “In my dreams sometimes I am still in this time. In February ’86, 245 people came to the gym. They would leave their guns at the door then, now they just leave their phones.”
All kinds of people came during the gym’s ’80s heyday, he explains, “engineers, doctors, all kinds. Now it is poor workers. ... Most people want luxury.”
For Abboud, gyms are not just places to try and keep New Year’s resolutions or exercise merely for the sake of it – for him, they are where champions are born.
Champions such as Dobilic the circus master; champions such as Olympic’s 1950s wrestling bronze medalist Elie Naasan; champions such as Khalil Abboud.
“Before people would come to the gym and say, ‘make me a champion,’” he says. “They would offer themselves to the gym.
“During this time, people were not so well educated. So they came to the gym to be champions. If you wanted to ask the hand of a pretty woman,” he grins, “and the father asks what are you doing for work, you can say, I am the champion of Lebanon. Now they just pay and give nothing.
“This gym created so many champions I can’t count – from 1945 till now, a great many,” Abboud says with a sigh. “People go to the gym just for fun now.”
This shift in the way people use gyms is, for Abboud, inextricably linked to the decline of competitive sport in the country.
“There is no sport in Lebanon now. I am in the boxing federation, and we struggle to find people to train, to play,” he says.
He glances down at his white T-shirt, emblazoned with the logo for the Limassol 2013 International Boxing Cup to which he took his team, and goes quiet for a second.
From football match-fixing scandals to a lack of public facilities to the four-year ban recently given to the country’s basketball league, Abboud has plenty of reasons to feel disillusioned. The worthiness and allure once attached to being an old-fashioned “champion” appears to have been lost to greed, politics and modern life.
Worst of all is the doping, he says. “In ’98, we went to a bodybuilding competition and I couldn’t believe it [the widespread use of steroids]. I told my team they could stop if they wanted, win or lose, this is not our place. We stopped after that, the steroids are too much.”
Bizarrely, after the boom years of the tumultuous ’80s, it was the end of the war that heralded the decline of Olympic. As the city slowly pulled itself back onto its feet, those who had previously depended on the gym built state-of-the-art fitness centers in the basements of their apartment blocks.
Abboud still trains boxing teams, but hardly anyone else comes to the gym these days. Even his grown-up son does not want to be involved, he has a life of his own selling cars.
“Now it is at the end,” he says, running his hands through his graying hair, a look of peaceful acceptance on his face. “This is coming to the end of my story.”