Last week, close to 2,000 runners from across the Middle East participated in the Baghdad International Marathon, the largest sporting event in the region in decades, reports the New York Times. Held on January 29, the race, which included separate events for men, women, youth, the physically challenged, and the elderly, saw participants from over eight countries including Morocco, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Organizers of the event relaxed standard marathon distances by allowing runners to run two, four, eight and ten kilometers across different categories. A chief motivation behind hosting the race, whose theme was ‘For Love and Peace’ was to showcase a different side of the heavily militarized city weighed down by sectarian violence and insurgency. Symbolically enough, the event was organized along Baghdad’s airport road, a stretch once dubbed ‘Highway of Death’ due to a history of explosions and sniper attacks.

On this race day, however, despite the heavy security cordon, Iraqi spectators and families of athletes stood waving flags, even as a motorcade of Harley Davidsons preceded the runners on their route.

Organizers and administrative officials in the city are hopeful that the event could be a predecessor for an annual marathon in Baghdad that can encourage local athletes and bring Iraqi athletics up to global standards.

Iraq had a strong marathon tradition in the late 70s and 80s, before the decades of struggle under dictatorship and subsequent war began. As Iraqis rebuild their nation, it’s great to see a marathon feature as part of the healing process and by the looks of it, this could be the start of something new for Iraq.

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