Runners from around the world descended on Sfax on December 11 for the International Marathon of The Olive Trees. An innovative 100-percent “green” sporting event that took place in the Tunisian city better known for olive oil production than athletics.
The fifth marathon drew runners from the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Ethiopia, Morocco and all over Tunisia. Elite athletes competed for medals and prize money. Many of the runners were simply drawn by the experience of running through 600 hectares of Tunisian olive groves and exploring the historical city of Sfax.
A pre-marathon party held on December 10 outside Sfax’s historic medina gave runners the chance to show off some of their fancier footwork. The athletes danced to traditional Tunisian music performed by a live orchestra. As the sun set over the medina, runners dressed in sefsaris and jebbas (traditional Sfaxian clothing) danced the Congo at Bab Diwan.
The spirit of the marathon was perfectly portrayed by French runner Dofosse Gilles, who crossed the finish line carrying a leafy olive branch. The crowd erupted into cheers and applause at Gilles’ gesture and the symbol of peace.
The gold medal winner in the men’s marathon was Moroccan Gherib Brahim. Silver went to Ethiopian Desalgen Mengiste Segn and Tunisian runner Mejri Amin (from Nabeul) won the bronze medal.
In the women’s race gold went to Ethiopian Estegnet Mola Zegey. Ethiopian Asnakech Abeje Regassa won the silver medal. A Bronze was awarded to a very surprised Hungarian woman, Edit Kiss. Kiss had participated purely for the experience and was not expecting to be among the winners.
The star of the day was a spritely 82-year-old Tunisian Mohamed kazdaghli. He competed in the 10k race and livened the day with his joie de vivre and antics
A drone buzzed above the 600 hectares of olive groves that surround the once time palace of Habib Bourghiba (first president of Tunisia); capturing the efforts of around 400 runners and the spirit of the occasion. Runners with less stamina than the full marathon distance (42.195 KM) required were able to participate in a half marathon, a 10K or a 5K race.
Over the past five years marathon organiser Naamen Bouhamed has been on a quest to transform Sfax into an international hub of sports tourism. Bouhamed aims to make the Marathon of the Olive Trees a world-class sporting event on par with those in London and New York.
Bouhamed has worked tirelessly to attract runners. His efforts have resulted in the development of a faster course for athletes and securing internationally-recognised certification for the event. Bouhamed’s vision is a large-scale marathon that encompasses Sfaxian history and culture. His final challenge is to overcome bureaucracy and ease the securing of visas for international participants.
Three of the competitors won their starting places in a lucky draw. One of the winners, Will Wall, from London joked that running the Sfax marathon was a great way to escape from his wife and two kids under three years old. It was Will’s first visit to Tunisia and he defied the advice of Great Britain not to travel to Tunisia for security reasons.
The enthusiasm and effort of the event’s president Bouhamed was tangible. Volunteers worked to ensure the smooth running of the event which catered exceptionally well to its international visitors.
Sfax has shone as Tunisia’s Capital of Arab Culture for 2016 and held its first international olive oil festival this year. Sfax looks set to become an international marathon destination and realize Bouhamed’s dream of becoming a hot-spot for sport tourism. Tunisia has experienced a decline in tourism since the deadly terrorist attacks struck the country in 2015.