Top Brazilian judo fighter comes home to Lebanon for Rio Olympics

Article Summary
Lebanese-Brazilian judoka Nacif Elias switched to Lebanon for the 2016 Olympics after reconnecting with the homeland he left as a child.

BEIRUT — Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, with Prime Minister Tammam Salam serving as acting president. In May 2016, when Michel Temer became acting president of Brazil, a country some 6,600 miles (10,000 km) from Lebanon, many Middle East media outlets noted the irony of a country in far-off South America being as close to having a Lebanese president as Lebanon itself. Temer is the son of two Lebanese immigrants.

But the connections between these two countries go deep despite geographic distance. And when the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil kick off Aug. 5, a Lebanon-born and Brazil-raised athlete, the judo practitioner Nacif Elias, will be Lebanon’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

“I wish to get the historical medal for Lebanon. I am ready for that,” Elias told Al-Monitor.

And with a string of victories leading up to the games, all eyes will be on the star Lebanese judoka.

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Elias was part of a wave of Lebanese immigrants that began coming to Brazil in the late 19th century and continued into modern times. Some 7-10 million Brazilians are of full or partial Lebanese ancestry, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a member of the Lebanese diaspora will be the Middle Eastern nation’s flag bearer at the games, as it’s believed this group is larger than the population of Lebanon itself. No matter how far they stray from their country, Lebanon’s motto of “all of us, for the homeland!” rings true for many Lebanese abroad. 

The 27-year-old Elias moved to Vitória, Espírito Santo, a small island just off Brazil’s southeastern coast, with his family when he was a child. Elias played for his adopted country until 2013, when he switched to Lebanon.

It’s common for Olympic athletes to switch countries in search of greater chances to qualify for international tournaments. But for Elias, the decision was personal and somewhat different in that he had been eligible for dual nationality since long before his judo career began.

“I switched because I love Lebanon and Lebanon is my country of origin. And the Lebanese Judo Federation, especially Francois Saade, support me so much,” Elias said.

In a July interview with Brazilian website Gazeta Online, Elias also cited financial support from Lebanon as reason for the switch.

“They support me by sponsoring me via Alfa Telecom, and they sent me to all the competitions. Also, I’m already known in Brazil,” Elias told Al-Monitor, referring to the Lebanese Judo Federation and the Lebanese Olympic Committee.

Despite now playing for a country with a much shorter judo tradition than Brazil's, Elias is set on winning the gold in his first Olympic appearance. Elias won the PanAm Open earlier this year, as well silver at the 2016 Asian Games, both of which he proudly pointed out in his interview.

These successes, among others, are drawing him some attention in Lebanon. An Arabic-language preview of the Olympics in the Lebanese An-Nahar today read, “All of Lebanon is talking about Nacif Elias. And although he doesn’t understand Arabic, he understands the power of his roots.”

LBC did a short TV segment on Elias on July 29, describing his recent victories and interviewing Saade, the president of the Lebanese Judo Federation.

Still, Elias’ rise is something of an anomaly for Lebanon, where judo is far from a highly popular sport. Elias is not a household name here and admittedly speaks “very, very little Arabic.” But he traverses the globe to train in his home country several times per year. Elias’ Bouddha Club is located in Mount Lebanon, north of the capital of Beirut. He speaks Portuguese and English with his trainers there.

Elias thinks judo is growing in Lebanon in spite of Lebanon's relatively low popularity, and he believes the training he receives in the country is of Olympic caliber.

“The training in Lebanon is very good and strong. They just need some experience,” he said. “And many athletes are good here, like the juniors Kevin Nicolaos and Elie Chaer.”

Both Nicolaos and Chaer participated in the 2015 World Junior Judo Championships in Abu Dhabi, so perhaps Lebanese judo will soon gain that experience.

Participating in the -81kg (178 lb) weight class, Elias will first compete in the men’s judo competition on Aug. 9, but not before draping himself in the iconic Lebanese cedar tree as Lebanon’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

Elias is the only Lebanese athlete participating in judo at the Olympics, but he will join nine other Lebanese men and women at the games in Rio de Janeiro.

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Found in: rio de janiero, olympics, olympic games, lebanese society, judoka, brazil, athletes

Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist. He has worked in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and other countries across the Middle East. On Twitter: @Adam_Lucente

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