Olympic Dreams: Chirine Njeim hopes her marathon efforts will seal spot at Tokyo 2020

Lebanese star transitioned from elite winter athlete to premier long-distance runner but faces nervous wait to see if she has been selected for this summer's Games

“It’s a new course record, she has done it!” The race announcer shouted over the tannoy repeatedly the news of Chirine Njeim’s latest achievement as she beat the event’s previous winner by more than two minutes.

Njeim was smiling as she strode across the finishing line on Sunday. It had been a comfortable run. She had just won the Beirut Marathon Association’s women’s 10-kilometre race in 35 minutes and 35 seconds.

Njeim, a four-time Olympian, is no stranger to the spotlight. At just eight years old, pitted against adults at the ski resort in Faqra, she won her first race in what would prove to be an illustrious athletic career.

In 2002, 2006 and 2010, Njeim represented Lebanon in the Winter Olympics in alpine skiing before transitioning to the marathon for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While Njeim fielded requests for photos, the big question was whether she would be selected for Lebanon’s 2020 Olympic team. The qualifying time for the marathon event has dropped dramatically since 2016, meaning Njeim’s personal best may still not be enough.

As a result, she is now competing for a single spot against other Lebanese athletes who have not made the automatic cut-off for their respective events. The place will be determined by the Lebanese Olympic Committee, who will send the name of the chosen athlete to the World Athletics Association by the end of June.

The National recently caught up with Njeim for a morning training session back in Faqra where her athletic career began.

Compared to the atmosphere after the race, training with Njeim was more subdued. While her victory in Sunday’s race was all but assured, her place in this summer’s Olympics is not.

The marathon she ran in Oregon on April 13 was the last realistic attempt she would get to make the automatic qualification for Tokyo, before the qualifying period ends this coming Monday.

While Njeim set a new personal record in her April marathon, shaving just under three minutes off her previous best to get a time of 2:36:40, it was seven minutes short of the time she would have needed for a guaranteed place in Tokyo.

Although this would have been enough to qualify in Rio, more competitive qualification standards mean that Njeim must now wait to see if she is awarded the single slot available by the governing body World Athletics.

All track athletes from the world other than the marathon runners have until the end of June to attempt to qualify for the Olympics or increase their world rankings. This means that there is nothing left at this stage for Chirine to do other than to wait and hope.

When asked about her chances, she says: "50/50, kinda thing. I hope I will be the one representing. I put a lot of effort into my marathon. I paid my own way to do things that are a little different.”

As a former skiing star, Njeim is not new to international competition. Running, however, is a new venture for the world-class athlete compared to her competitors. “I used to hate running, never liked it.” she concedes. “I was always about doing sprints.”

But, after the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Njeim traded mountains for sky-scrapers and moved her life to Chicago to be with her husband. Once she began going on occasional runs in the parks to stay in shape, Njeim started to see the appeal of running.

It wasn’t long before her competitive streak came out. She found herself surrounded by high-performance runners. With an older sister Nesrine, who is a competitive runner, as her main motivation, she entered into her first marathon in Chicago in 2012, finishing it in 3:07.

Njeim’s first marathon time would be a dream for many competitive athletes who have been training for decades.

Chrine Njeim competing for Lebanon in the alpine skiing women's downhill event at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. Getty
Chrine Njeim competing for Lebanon in the alpine skiing women's downhill event at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. Getty

After that race, Njeim caught the running bug. She threw herself into beating her time in Chicago, shaving off a minute or so here or there.

In 2015, she doubled down on her quest to push her running efforts, connecting with a pro-runner who guided her through a training program. It worked. At the Chicago Marathon, she beat her personal best by a staggering 17 minutes, getting a time of 2:46.

Njeim surprised herself with her timing. After seeing that the Beirut Marathon was scheduled just a few weeks later, she decided to fly back and run at her home event.

Reflecting on the experience, Chirine says: “I wanted to see if I could do it again.”

In much hotter and more challenging conditions, Njeim managed to still run a blistering 2:49. With these two races under her belt, she had suddenly transitioned from Lebanon’s most elite winter athlete to the country’s premier long-distance runner.

Njeim returned to the US with a confidence boost and a new mission: to shave two minutes off her personal best in order to qualify for the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016. Going against the advice of her coach for running in back-to-back races, Njeim clocked a gutsy 2:44 in Houston just three months after her breakthrough race in Chicago, sealing her place at the Summer Games.

“And so I was going to the Olympics. Running the Houston Marathon was so satisfying and in a way was my own Olympics. Because, by doing it, I accomplished something that a lot of people thought was a crazy idea. I went for it because I believed it was the right thing to do,” says Njeim.

Njeim’s stardom in Lebanon is obvious during Sunday’s race. Even without a Tokyo berth, she will remain a local legend. But for Njeim, it is clear that this is not enough.

As she spends the next month watching and waiting while other athletes compete for Lebanon’s remaining Olympic spot, Njeim’s focus will remain singularly on Tokyo.

“You always want the best for your friends and fellow athletes. But ultimately, we are all competitive people, and I want to go to the Olympics,” she says, "I wish nothing but the best for them, but whoever is the best and should be there, deserves to go."

Updated: May 25, 2021 07:23 PM

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