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.



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