Abdullah Hajir looked tired of travelling when I spoke to him over Skype upon his return from South Africa— where he won a gold medal for powerlifting on November 2, 2016. His muscles had not changed since I last saw him in our town a year ago. Hajir, 28, had exceptionally big muscles. “In most competitions, I am subjected to doping tests, when the panel observes my stamina and big muscles,” he said.

Abdullah Hajir looked tired of travelling when I spoke to him over Skype upon his return from South Africa— where he won a gold medal for powerlifting on November 2, 2016. His muscles had not changed since I last saw him in our town a year ago. Hajir, 28, had exceptionally big muscles. “In most competitions, I am subjected to doping tests, when the panel observes my stamina and big muscles,” he said.

Hajir, like other competing in individual sports or in international competitions like chess, do so at their own expense, since there is no state support. “We don’t get a quarter of the support received by our Egyptian colleagues, although our country is richer than Egypt. Our money goes to the militias and money traffickers,” he said wistfully.

He did not hide his sadness as he spoke about the two championships he trained in his hometown of Ajdabia, 160 km west of Benghazi, and who won the Arab and Africa championships in Al-Tawun Club. “Unfortunately, due to the lack of support, one of them worked for a catering company in the desert and later got married. I hope the other will wait until he receives government support.”

Coach’s encouragement

Hajir grew up in an athletic family. His older brothers played football. When he realised that his peers were better at football than he was, he decided to try his luck in weight lifting. His prep school Tarek bin Ziad had a gym dedicated to older children. “Every time I went there to register, they refused me because of my small body and young age,” he said.

Thanks to the encouragement of his mother, who wanted him to join sports to spend his leisure time in useful activities, coupled with his persistence, Hajir eventually joined the club at the age of 14. He could then not have expected that first step would bring him international fame and 24 gold medals to his sporting credit to date.

Hajir’s first coach Mohammed al-Shakkah has a special place in the heart of Arab and African champions. “He was an immense source of confidence and great encouragement in the absence of financial and moral support,” said Hajir. “Whenever my resolve faltered, his words were a driving force towards victory.”

The coach predicted Hajir’s success. One year after starting his career, and more specifically at the first preparation for the Libya Championship in 2003, when his body grew and became stronger, Hajir was no longer the young trainee in the eyes of his coach, who told him “you are a rising champion and you deserve titles.”  Three years later, Hajir participated in Libya championship 2006 and won Libya Champion title, and kept that title for four years in a row.

No financial support

After 2006, Hajir had no sponsorship and was running out of money. “This sport needs an expensive dietary system and large meals,” he explained. “In addition to proteins and food supplements, which I could not afford because I did not have any financial support. So I worked at a mobile phone shop, which provided me with relatively sufficient resources,” Hajir said.

Stopping training was out of the question, he said. Using the money he earned in two years of hard work, he established a gym in the Al-Tawun Club in Ajdabia. Although that gym was very modest in terms of space and equipment and had been unfit for a world champion, Hajir believed it was “a good beginning and could improve over time through perseverance and hard work.”

During that difficult time in which Hajir had not received any official support, he concentrated on training until his muscles grew stronger. In 2007, he won the Arab Champion title in Libya, and the year 2010 had been the apex of his gold harvest. “In that year, I realized part of my dream, when I won Arab Champion title in Syria and Champion of Africa in Algeria,” he said.

Hajir returned to Libya in that year to a low-key welcome, unfit for a gold-medal holder. “I was rejoiced at the welcome given to me by my folks and ‘ Al-Tawaun Club’ fans. They have supported me all along and encouraged me to uphold the name of my neglected town.”

Worsened situation

After 2011, the situation worsened more than he had expected; he had to buy the air tickets and cover his accommodation charges and other expenses for his international participations. Successive governments only told him there was a lack of funds. Overburdened, he decided to sell the equipment of his gym to collect enough money to continue his cherished dream of participating in world championships.

Hajir travelled to the world championships in South Africa, and held the Libyan champion title in 2013 and 2014. He also won Arab and African champion titles at competitions held in Morocco in 2013, which qualified him to take part in South Africa’s championship.

However, owing to reasons, he is not aware of, and which he believes were  personal, he had been excluded from representing his team. That exclusion had strongly affected his resolve and he later submitted an appeal with the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), but the exclusion decision could not be reversed.

Help of his friends

In 2015, he was again nominated for world weightlifting championship in Finland. “I travelled to Tunisia to apply for a visa, because the government did not extend any help to its nominees,” said Hajir. His brother had to sell his own car to help out, but Hajir was nevertheless denied a visa and his application was refused. All the money his brother offered him had been wasted.

In the same year, Hajir and other Libyan team members were denied entry to Morocco to participate in the Arab and African championships, because the Moroccan authorities imposed a visa requirement for Libyans, which they failed to get. The next year, Hajir could not join the open international championship competition in Algeria, which qualified participants to participate in world championships, because he did not have enough money to take part in that event.

His brothers, friends and colleagues at the club had not accepted his exclusion from that event, and they out their money together. “They demanded that I could not return without the title; it was a heavy burden,” says Hajir, who participated in the 105kg weight championship. He did after all bring back a gold medal, with his eyes set on the world championship in the U.S. in 2016.

He returned to his hometown to a tumultuous welcome and moral and material support his compatriots could afford. Some friends coordinated with Al-Madina Perfumes Company in his hometown to sponsor his upcoming world championship, and he dared to hope.

A small sponsor

Thanks to the sponsorship, Hajir could join the team, which struggled to get the US visa and travel a long distance to take part in the world championship. Although he was tired and suffered a backbone problem, he ranked sixth out of 19 world champions. “I am happy with this result, given the big difference regarding our travel circumstances and preparations, in comparison with the other more fortunate teams,” he said.

His journey was crowned with the recent winning of the African championship medal. “This time around, my hometown fans helped me a lot,” he said. He gifted his beloved hometown the golden ribbon in recognition of his birthplace and the homestead of his early childhood. Special traditional celebrations were arranged for his triumphant return, in addition to festivities organized in the Ajdabian way. It was a big moral support for him amid an absolute absence of officials in Libya.

Hajir, who received offers from other countries wonders, “If a sportsman participated in an athletic event on behalf of another country that offered him needed support, would he be accused of betraying his country, although his country and its officials have abandoned him?”