Photos by: Akl Yazbeck/sportscode
Interviewed by: Patricia Bitar Cherfan, Editor-in-Chief
Silvio Chiha is an award-winning athlete who has received plenty of awards representing Lebanon. However, these days his focus is on youth empowerment, democratizing sports, and showing Lebanon’s best face to the world.
Many know Silvio Chiha as a water skiing and wake boarding champion. He holds three gold medals from Asian championships, including the prestigious Asia-Australasia Oceania (AAO) water skiing championship in South Korea. Outside of the water, Chiha has garnered many awards in Sanda Chinese boxing, judo, white weapon, and mixed martial arts. At 29, Chiha has fully retired from professional sports but still trains in boxing, gymnastics, judo, and wakeboarding every day.
Today, one of his key missions is to raise awareness among the new generation. Chiha visits as many schools as he can and speaks to the youth. “It’s better to raise healthy children than fix broken men,” he says. “I want the new generation to have values, give back to the country, have respect for the family and stay away from drugs.”
Losing his first match: a blessing in disguise
Chiha comes from a family of athletes. His father, Alecco Chiha, was a water skiing champion and his mother excelled in taekwondo. He began training young and entered his first international water skiing competition at age 12. He came in last place. “I was extremely upset but my mother encouraged me to go on. She would wake me up at 5 a.m. to train, then drive me to school, then pick me up to train again. A year later, I went back to the competition in Dubai and I won which is when I raised the Lebanese flag,” says Chiha.
While competing, Chiha went on to major in economics at the L’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ). This was followed by a year in Shanghai studying international business. China was a real eye-opener for him. “It was an entirely different world to what I knew.
All the people work exceptionally hard. I then understood firsthand why China is excelling so fast,” says Chiha.
Promoting Lebanon positively through films
When Lebanon faced the infamous 2015 garbage crisis, Chiha felt the urge to do something positive for his beloved country’s image. “The media was talking about how Lebanon is drowning in waste, instead of covering our abundant green areas, the youth of Lebanon and many other positive facets,” says Chiha. He decided to embark on an ambitious project that cleverly combined sports and filmmaking.
The result was a series of short films highlighting his HOMEland’s stunning natural landscape: “The Coast,” “Lebanon Through My Eyes,” “Beirut,” “Jounieh,” and “The White Face of Lebanon.”
“It’s better to raise healthy children than fix broken men.”
These professional videos feature Chiha performing outdoor sports across Lebanon, such as in Jabal Chouwwen, Anfeh, Taanayel, Chekka, and Faraya. Chiha’s ultimate goal is to be able to make a film covering every region of Lebanon. The former athlete credits Marwan Hayek, the CEO of Alfa, for being his biggest supporter for his short films. The films are all posted on YouTube and have amassed a total of a million views.
“Lebanon Through My Eyes” was produced with the help of the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism. A book of photographs was released alongside the video. Proceeds from sales were donated to BASSMA, an NGO for empowering underprivileged families in Lebanon.
Empowering youth with sports
In 2016, Chiha won a seat during the municipal elections for Jounieh. Since then, he has been managing all sports-related projects for the municipality. One of his biggest achievements, so far, is upgrading the Fouad Chehab Stadium to hold sporting events and tournaments. The renovation, which would have been its first in 50 years, entails the construction of a tennis and pethanque court, as well as a miniature football field for younger players. Supporters can enjoy the new seats painted in colorful red, green, and yellow hues surrounding the stadium, adding a splash of color to an otherwise drab area.
Recently, Chiha established a free school for all students in Keserwan that teaches judo and, very soon, many other martial arts such as taekwondo, kung fu, and aikido.
In 2018, an international women’s football match for the under-19 age group was held at that stadium. Lebanon went on to win against Hong Kong (6-1) despite the odds. The coach had scrambled around Lebanon to recruit girls at the last minute, who had little time to train as a team. The Hong Kong players came with a professional support team that included physiotherapists, assistants, and the latest training equipment. On the other hard, the Lebanese team had barely any support.
“What moved me most was how the girls bonded with excellent teamwork on the field,” shares Chiha. “This powerful scene stayed with me: A player from south Lebanon wearing the hijab gave a pass to a girl from Zgharta, who then scored a goal thanks to the timely pass. The player from the south was so overjoyed for the Zgharta athlete who scored that she kneeled in prayer, as if saluting her. This is a small example showing that when Lebanese put their heads together, they can achieve great things.”
Now, Fouad Chehab Stadium is always booked, bringing players from all over the region to improve their skills in football and other sports. “This is one way we want to build the next generation — by teaching teamwork and discipline through sports,” he says. Recently, Chiha donated a space to the Judo Federation on a plot of land that belonged to him. “I asked the federation to use this space in order to teach judo to the children from all local public schools for free,” says Chiha.
Fighting for greener, cleaner Lebanon
Chiha has also participated in various international initiatives to promote a cleaner Lebanon. He recently partnered with The United Nations Information Centre in Beirut with the aim of safeguarding Lebanon’s marine life. Last year, he was one of the finalists representing west Asia for the UN Champion of the Earth program for the United Nations Environmental Programme — a UN program that assists developing countries in implementing environmentally sound policies and practices.
“Reversing the damage to marine life due to waste in Lebanon is feasible. What is holding us back from taking large-scale measures is the tremendous bureaucracy to get anything approved by the government. For a single idea to receive the approval of every stakeholder and politician can take years and a lot of work. And most of the time, it doesn’t even end up going through! I don’t have the know-how to tackle this complicated web of government politics to get the task done,” says Chiha.
According to him, real change will come through empowering the new generation and starting the culture of waste management at HOME.
“Education needs to start at HOME with our children. We need to train our kids and families to think this way to change mentalities,” says Chiha. “Families should divide the waste into garbage bins for recycling at HOME, even if they know that the municipality gathering the garbage picks them with the same truck.”
Chiha doesn’t see himself living away from his HOMEland. “I got many offers for sports and work in many countries, but what kept me here is family,” he says. “My mother was my right hand growing up. She taught me to be disciplined and supported me 100 percent. My father and sister were very supportive, too. As part of my daily practice, I train twice a day, every single day. I am very strict with my diet. I don’t indulge with sweets. I don’t go out a lot or rarely. You need to be close to your family and keep them close. This is the message I will keep spreading to the youth.” He foresees himself as a married man and a father surrounded by small champions a few years down the line.
Chiha admits Lebanon has many challenges but is determined to keep working for change through his platform in politics and as a sports figure.
“I want the youth to enjoy the beaches, have clean air, nice roads and all the facilities they deserve. I will not give up,” says Chiha. It may seem like an uphill battle, but one thing is for sure: Chiha is making a positive impact, one youth at a time, serving as inspiration to the following generation who will hopefully follow his example to better their nation.
Over and above his well-meaning deeds, Chiha prays for a brighter future for Lebanon. On a final note, this multi-talented champion had this message for the Lebanese diaspora: “Lebanon would not be standing on its feet without you. Invest in this country — even if it’s a small contribution. Build a house in your ancestral village. Teach your children how to speak Arabic. It is important. At the end of the day, you will return to your roots. You will want to come and see Lebanon, and your children will want to know where their grandparents are from. Invest in this country, believe in this country, and keep supporting it.”
For more info:
Video links: Lebanon Through My Eyes: https://bit.ly/2zrdFsd
The Coast: https://bit.ly/30J0gHV
The White Face of Lebanon: https://bit.ly/2ZCenND