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Croydon journalist nominated for Libyan person of the year

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A FREELANCE journalist who grew up in New Addington has been nominated as Libyan person of the year for helping rebuild the country's horseracing industry.

In April the Abu Sittah track in Tripoli hosted Libya's first race meeting since the fall of Colonel Muammer Gaddafi's regime two years earlier.

The new Government now wants to recognise Former Haling Manor pupil Lissa Oliver for her role in bringing back horseracing to Libya.

The incredible story began at Newmarket in December 2011 when Lissa, 49, overheard talk of wealthy Libyan buyers looking to purchase dozens of horses.

"When Gaddafi was overthrown and there was civil war, the retreating troops stole horses from various stud farms," she explained.

"The head of the Libyan Horseracing Authority had the biggest stud in Libya. Fifty broodmares were stolen as the troops retreated. They were never traced.

"I first heard about it at the sales in Newmarket. The owners of that stud farm, and other Libyan breeders, were trying to rebuild their stock, buying 20 to 30 horses at a time.

"I thought it was a good human interest story so I phoned them up and asked them about it and they were happy to talk. It was from there that I ended being the only English language reporter in Libyan horseracing."

Through her work, the Libyan Horseman's Association asked Lissa to produce a document on the benefits of horseracing to the economy. Using her experience of the industry in Ireland she estimated it might one day lead to 22,000 new jobs, attract 80,000 tourists annually and create £1.1 billion a year.

The Government was convinced and invested the equivalent of £5 million into the Libyan Horseracing Authority to develop existing racecourses and promote a sport which had been marginalised under Gaddafi.

Lissa's contacts were called upon again when it came to striking a deal on a software package, with the Minister of Agriculture publically thanking her for saving £1.8 million.

She is now making the most of being one of the few reporters writing about horseracing in Libya, knowing the industry will attract more attention as it continues to grow.

"When you see these people trying to build up from scratch you forget they are wealthy and had 50 horses before," she said.

"Suddenly they are people who are starting from the beginning again, like the country itself.

"Horses aren't a business item, they are one of the family. When these people are talking about not getting them back, you feel for them.

"It's a privilege to have been there at the beginning. Horseracing goes back hundreds of years so to suddenly be there at the beginning is very exciting."

Passion for writing

Lissa discovered her love for writing at an early age, but needed to explore outside Croydon to realise her passion for horses.

"I loved holidaying in the countryside and being out in farms, which we didn't have around New Addington," she said. "Living with houses on top of each other probably didn't help with my interest in horseracing because I'd only seen it on television. I had no experience of horses, so it made it hard to get my foot in the door in the first place."

After leaving school at 16, Lissa moved away from Croydon, working in several stud farms before getting married. A job at Ladbrokes followed before a letter to a horseracing magazine led to a career as a freelance journalist.

She has since been nominated for numerous sports writing awards and has published three novels, two on horseracing and another on the Roman emperor Nero.

First visit

Lissa lives in Kildare, Ireland, but regularly visits her sister at her home in Shirley.

Incredibly, when she travels to the capital Tripoli for the award ceremony in October, it will be the first time she has been to Libya.

"It's amazing, I know," she said. "I didn't even know they had a horseracing industry before I started writing about it."

Lissa added: "I was at Newmarket when I heard about the nomination.

"The head of the Libyan Horseman's Association said he had some good news for me.

"He said I had been nominated for person of the year and I was flabbergasted.

"My first thought was that I was a woman, and foreign.

"I told him it was ridiculous and I hadn't done anything. I thanked him and said I was very honoured.

"I've only been nominated. Hopefully someone much more deserving will win."

Croydon journalist nominated for Libyan person of the year


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