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Winter 2007 Vol. V, No. 2

In Our History

Pre-Ping Pong: Abdel Satar Traboulsi Kicks Off Sports at AUB and in Lebanon

Aleksandra Majstorac Kobiljski

In fall 1929, a delegation of 22 athletes from the Egyptian University visited Beirut for a week of athletic contests in football, basketball, track and field, and tennis. The following spring, ten AUB athletes visited Cairo for a similar series of events. These visits, initiated by Abdel Satar Traboulsi and officially sponsored by the University, were not only the "talk of the campus." They also provided a significant impetus for the development of sports at AUB. These events would be fairly unremarkable today when AUB sport teams compete international and locally and AUB students are often seen running along the Corniche. But back then, this sports exchange was noteworthy for several reasons: it took place before commercial air travel and it was an indication that in just two years Director of Athletics Traboulsi had strengthened AUB teams to the point that they were able to compete successfully against teams from Cyprus and Egypt. The increasing popularity of sports at AUB played an important role in the development of a culture of physical education in Lebanon.

For more than 40 years, Traboulsi who was the champion of Lebanon and the Arab world in pistol shooting competition, was the driving force behind AUB sports. He joined the University in 1927, and because of his youth and enthusiasm quickly became a role model for students, encouraging them to stick with sports even after they had satisfied the mandatory requirements. Physical activity had long been an important part of education at AUB since it was widely believed that competitive sports would improve and strengthen young men’s character. First introduced in the 1880s, Field Day became a formally organized public event a decade later. Despite the popularity of Field Day, however, there was not much else in the way of organized sports on campus.

There were sporting events—football, bicycle races, tennis matches, and basketball games—in Beirut. Some of the first such recorded meetings actually took place at AUB. After the end of World War I and the economic recovery of the second half of the 1920s, more students flocked to the University. With Traboulsi’s encouragement, many foreign students discovered sports for the first time. In 1927-28, President Bayard Dodge wrote that the academic year "has been a successful one in the athletics life of the University, owing mainly to the enthusiasm and organizing ability of the Physical Director. [...] This has given an opportunity for an increasing number of students of mediocre athletic ability to compete, whereas heretofore there has been a tendency for only the better athletes to take part. This, we feel, is a distinct advance in the athletic life."

By 1933, AUB had a number of basketball, football, and volleyball teams for men, in addition to a women’s basketball team. Two years later, there were 16 tennis courts on campus, a volleyball court, indoor roller skating rink, a bowling alley, gymnastics room, and three outdoor basketball courts. This was quite a unique collection of sports facilities in Lebanon at the time. AUB athletes participated in national meets. In 1931 AUB athletes took part in an all-Lebanon track and field meet at Rayak, entering nine of the ten events scheduled and wining seven first-place medals and two second-place spots. In 1932, the varsity team won three out of the five matches it played against local sport clubs.

In the interwar period, tennis was the sport of choice especially for faculty and alumni, although a number of students and frequent campus visitors were often spotted on the tennis courts as well. At that time, the tennis courts were located behind College Hall where the Jafet Library is today. As the library was then on the second floor of College Hall, students spent many sunny days studying in the library and wishing they had the time to indulge in a game or two. Women students from the period often remember the breathtaking view of the Mediterranean and the tennis courts that they enjoyed from the balcony of the Women's Lounge. In 1933 there were more than 130 members of the AUB Tennis Club, but only 13 of them were women! To encourage more women to use the courts, a faculty member offered to give women tennis lessons first in the Handball Room in West Hall and then on the tennis courts. In

addition, women students were allowed to use President Dodge's tennis court on Fridays, a privilege that earned them the envy of male students. In 1939, the AUB Tennis Club had to turn away members because the courts were regularly overbooked. That same year the Lebanese Championship was formally organized and held at AUB. Nadim Majdalani became the Lebanese Tennis Champion, a position he would hold for a number of years to follow.

In 1935, the new swimming facilities on the rocks below the campus proved to be a great success. Many students participated in various water sports, from swimming and free jumps to water polo. Women students had access to both the faculty and student beaches. (They were later merged in the 1940s.) Traboulsi also introduced training for lifeguards, which continued for decades. In 1952 the first woman student became a lifeguard.

During the 1940s, Traboulsi promoted a wide range of sports and introduced interested students to a number of new sports, such as ping-pong, archery, badminton, hockey, bodybuilding, and skiing. His success at AUB contributed to his reputation off campus and he became known as the consummate physical education professional. A commentary on the state of sports in Lebanon published in Revue du Liban in December 1946, says it quite well: “Sport is much neglected in Beirut, except at the American University, and this is thanks to the excellent coach - Abdel Satar Traboulsi. His technique merits that we entrust him with the physical education of the entire Lebanese youth.”

Traboulsi's tireless efforts to promote competitive and recreational sports on campus started bearing fruit. AUB alumni such as Michel and Ernest Farah, Joe and Maurice Tabet, and Labib and Nadim Majdalani dominated the tennis scene. These were men whose appreciation and passion for sports was nurtured by Traboulsi in the 1930s. They had all been members of varsity teams during their years at AUB. The Lebanese Tennis Championships continued to be hosted at AUB throughout the 1940s. At the same time, the AUB varsity teams were regularly beating other local and international teams. (AUBites are particularly proud of their victory over the Cyprus football championship team in 1946.) When the Lebanese Olympic Committee was founded in 1947, it was in part the result of Traboulsi’s two decades of passion and commitment.

Today, the Athletics Department is an important part of student life at AUB and one of the most active members of the Universities Sports Federation of Lebanon (FSUL), as well as many other local and international clubs and sports bodies. Traboulsi was often heard to say to AUB students, "it is not important to win, but to take part." Traboulsi's vision of sports at AUB lives on, as the Athletics Department provides all students, regardless of their ability or previous experience, the ability to get involved in sports. In spring 2007, the opportunities for AUB student athletes will be further enhanced when the Charles W. Hostler Student Center—a 93,000–square–foot hub for sports and student activities—opens its doors.