Inequality and Sectarianism in Lebanese Basketball
By Ahmad Karakira
The Lebanese National men’s basketball team has successfully managed to qualify to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 2021 Asia cup. Nonetheless, Lebanese basketball have had both its ups and downs throughout time, historical records show.
It took almost 30 years for the game of basketball to enter a small country like Lebanon, thanks to American and French religious missionaries. In 1921, Lebanese citizens, especially students, were introduced to the game that originated from Springfield, Massachusetts in the US. The beautiful game was mostly practiced in schools and universities, as Al Makassed and the American University of Beirut were among the first educational institutions to establish teams of young boys.
According to Abdo Gedeon, sports archivist, we owe a man called Gabriel Arbaji for taking basketball from schools and universities to streets and arenas. Arbaji was the pioneer in establishing the first Lebanese basketball club in 1936 that was called the Catholic Youth. Five years later, Lebanese women had already established their own team through gathering themselves from different schools, universities, and organizations. Now famous clubs such as Al Riyadi and Homenetman followed this lead shortly afterwards.
Lebanese basketball was in constant development through establishing more clubs and through international and regional participation led by our national and university teams, says Gedeon in his website that he established to archive all Lebanese sports. Nonetheless, this development process reached a dead end in 1975, when the Lebanese civil war erupted and basketball activity, similar to every activity, was forced to stay on hold.
After the Taif agreement that ended the civil war in Lebanon, basketball activity resumed in 1992. However, 1999 was a golden era for the game in Lebanon, thanks to a businessman called Antoine Choueiry, owner of Sagesse club. The financial contribution that Choueiry added to the game made him the godfather of Lebanese basketball. Sagesse, his team, was able to break a record for the first team to win the FIBA Asian Club championship for three times. A small country like Lebanon, which was torn by its civil war was able to qualify to the FIBA Word Cup for three times also (2002, 2006, and 2010).
Ending with the positives, it’s now time to talk about several issues that threaten Lebanese basketball. Although shiny from the outside, the inside of Lebanese sports in general, and basketball in particular can be dark. Accoding to Zahi Sahili, a writer, the stadiums, the fans, and the chants can tell much about the sectarianism present Lebanese basketball. From clubs raising politicians’ pictures in the arenas, to the fans chanting racists and political songs, it’s “war, minus the shooting”, defines Danyel Reiche, a sports and political researcher at AUB, Lebanese basketball in an article published in the New York Times.
I have mentioned the notable achievements that the men’s team was able to score, however, few major achievements can be credited to the women’s national team. In fact, historical stats from FIBA show that our ladies have only participated twice in international events and four times in regional ones, compared to six international events and 13 regional ones for Lebanese men. These numbers are alarming and question the development of women basketball in Lebanon.
When it comes to the Lebanese basketball championships, it is as if there is an oligarchy of clubs dominating the first places in every league. The below charts examine the domination of few clubs such as Al Riyadi, Sagesse, Homenetman, Champville, and Antranik, over men and women championships starting from 1992 after resuming basketball in Lebanon. This worrying domination sheds the light on the huge gap found between basketball clubs in Lebanon, their finances, and their possible reasons for participating in the league, especially the clubs that don’t have significant results.
The other domination present in Lebanese basketball is related to geographical domination. While the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US consists teams representing different regions in the country, it is noticed that the top frontier teams in Lebanese basketball is mainly found in the governorates of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, especially the clubs that hold the men’s championships such as Al Riyadi, Sagesse, Homenetman, and Champville. Although this might be a minor concern for some, but it might be important for otthers, especially to the citizens of other governorates such as Beqaa, Akkar, and Nabatiya for example.
Lebanese basketball has one reached a golden level through its achievements. However, with the ongoing Covid-19 situation, the Lebanese economic crisis, and the domination of few teams over the podiums, few is known about the future of this game in this country.