From blocked shipments of equipment to a lack of access to Olympic-sized, or even just adequate, training facilities, the six athletes of Team Palestine have overcome the odds to compete in the 2016 Games.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Under the stifling conditions of the Israeli occupation, Palestinians who dreamed of competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro faced challenges few other world athletes could even imagine, but with perseverance and ingenuity, six are now living their Olympic dreams.
Though most of the Palestinian Olympic team — a marathoner, two swimmers, a sprinter, an equestrian, a judoka, and their coaches — lack state-of-the-art, or even sufficient, facilities and equipment with which to train, these six athletes did not let adversity and bitterness stand in their way.
Olympic policy might officially denounce politicization in favor of the unity of world competition, but by the very act of bringing together athletes from nearly every corner of the globe, the games incidentally accentuate various international conflicts — perhaps none more so than that of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“I’m very proud to be going to Rio. And to represent Palestine,” swimmer Mary al-Atrash told CBC News. “I also have the responsibility of highlighting that we are living under great difficulties.”
‘This is something to be proud of’
Mary al-Atrash, a 22-year-old swimmer set to compete in the 50-meter freestyle heats on Aug. 12, had no choice but to train in inadequate facilities — a limitation ordinarily considered debilitating for a competitive swimmer — as no Olympic-sized pool is accessible in Palestinian territories. Appropriate accommodations nearby were theoretically available to Atrash had she applied for access, as several media outlets have pointed out. But those sources failed to note that Palestinians are rarely, if ever, given permission to use them.
Travel restrictions, arbitrary delays or detainments by Israeli checkpoint guards, and denials of requested access by Israel’s government, make modern facilities little more than an unreachable carrot-on-a-stick to Palestine’s aspiring Olympians. Occasionally, needs as basic as water are in scarce supply: During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan this year, Israel ultimately admitted to severely curtailing the flow of water to the West Bank.
So they are instead forced to make due — and, in some cases, innovate — in order to properly train. For Atrash, this meant swimming at a YMCA whose 25-meter length pool is just half the length of an Olympic-sized pool. This forced her to flip-turn during training, rather than swim the full 50 meters like she will in competition.
“Because of all the difficulties that Palestinians live under,” Atrash, the youngest member of Team Palestine, continued, “it makes it harder to practice and compete in our sports.”
Given these constraints, the Palestinian presence in Rio — the country’s largest team yet to compete in the Olympic Games — evidences the athletes’ indomitable strength of spirit.
“Our presence in any international event is important because it shows our ambition. It shows our strong will,” Mousa Nawawreh, the swimmer’s coach, told CBC News.
“I am very happy that there is someone from Palestine who will represent us in the Olympics,” Nawawreh beamed to Reuters. “This is something to be proud of, especially with the limited resources we have.”
Atrash had to rely on guidance from her coach instead of training with other swimmers, and only recently traveled to Algeria where she plunged into an Olympic-sized pool for the first time. But in coping with the smaller pool, her times weren’t sufficient to qualify for the Olympics under normal circumstances. Her personal best time in the 50-meter freestyle, 29.91 seconds, fell shy of the 25.28-second Olympic benchmark to compete.
Fortunately for the Palestinian team, the International Olympic Committee recognizes that not everyone can access appropriate training conditions. The governing body offers a program to allow athletes from compromised circumstances, who wouldn’t ordinarily qualify, to compete in the Games.
“Preparations are going well, and considering the resources we have … we are able to achieve our best and set goals and ambitions,” Atrash told Reuters. “I am so happy, representing Palestine in competitions is a dream for any Palestinian athlete, especially the Olympics.”
Another swimmer, Ahmed Jibril, faced similar trying circumstances in training for his second Olympic appearance. Jibril, who finished 29th in the 2012 Olympics in London, didn’t advance past the men’s 200-meter freestyle heats on Sunday.
Like Mary al-Atrash, Jibril understands the stiff competition is made all the more strenuous by the restrictive situation in occupied Palestine, but he is thrilled even to be able to compete against the world’s best athletes. Jibril also believes raising the Palestinian flag on the international stage stands as a strong reminder to the world of Palestinian persistence and genuine love of life.
Mayada al-Sayad, a marathoner with dual German-Palestinian citizenship, will be the first Palestinian ever to compete in that Olympic event, which takes place on Aug. 14. Sayad, differing somewhat from the other athletes, dismissed the political ramifications of her place on the Palestinian team.
“Palestine wants to build up a team for Rio,” she said last year, adding: “I don’t have political but only sporting reasons to compete for Palestine.”
Another team member, Simon Yacoub, a German and Palestinian judoka, failed to advance through the preliminary rounds on Saturday.
Watch My Way to Rio. Simon Yacoub:
Equestrian Christian Zimmermann, a third Palestinian-German, finished at the top in the field from Africa and the Middle East, and will now be the first dressage competitor to represent Palestine in the Olympic Games.
Mohammed Abu Khoussa set two Palestinian records for sprinting prior to qualifying for this year’s Olympic team — once in the 2013 Athletics World Championship, and again in 2014 — by finishing first in the 200-meter and third in the 100-meter sprints during an international tournament in France. Abu Khoussa, who won bronze at the Asian Indoor Athletics Championship in February, will compete in a 100-meter preliminary race on Aug. 13.
‘I just keep going forward’
Not every athlete struggling to qualify for the Olympics will make it to the Games, though not for lack of effort.
Like Mary al-Atrash, runner Mohammed al-Khatib dealt with problematic circumstances in training for the Olympics, but he, too, persisted more to represent Palestine in Rio than for any personal glory.
“I want to win an Olympic medal for Palestine. I know it’s the hardest thing to do, but I’m going to try,” Khatib told Al-Jazeera in March.
“To represent Palestine at the Olympics is bringing hope to my people.”
In Hebron, Khatib and his fellow countrymen face some of the worst effects of Israel’s occupation, as continuing clashes between hostile illegal settlers and Palestinian residents mark daily life in the divided city.
No track is available with the proper surface to alleviate physical stress on runners’ bodies, nor are the equipment and trainers Khatib and other track and field competitors so desperately need. Rather than succumbing to the defeat of onerous circumstances, Khatib set out to fulfill his Olympic aspirations, turning to YouTube for training tips when a coach could not be attained.
“I knew I had two options,” Khatib told Al-Jazeera. “I would either start blaming the world for not having a decent track or equipment and I would just give up. Or I would try to find my way around it and that’s what I did.”
Most often relegated to running in the streets, Khatib occasionally managed to gain access to tracks at Birzeit University or high schools in Ramallah. Restrictions on hours, however, made those facilities only a minimal part of his workouts.
“When the tracks weren’t open, I would train on the streets,” he explained. “Access to the school was either early in the morning — before classes started around 6am — or after the school day was finished at 4pm, and usually I would have to work at this time or I would be tired.”
Birzeit’s track, as the news outlet noted, has an asphalt surface, which can cause injury, and at 84 meters in length, it falls short of what’s necessary for the Olympic-length sprints Khatib would have run in Rio. But for three years, Khatib’s training in these conditions paid off — the athlete shaved his 100-meter sprint time from 15 seconds to 11, falling excruciatingly shy of the 10.16-second time required to compete in the Games.
“I know a lot of athletes in Palestine face all these difficulties and at some point they give up,” Khatib said. “I almost gave up at one stage, but it’s really just about going forward regardless if I’m crawling, walking or running.”
“I just keep going forward and here I am, I’m so close.”
Palestinian ambition, pride trumps Israeli apartheid, medals
Obstacles on the road to Rio weren’t limited only to athletes on the Palestinian team.
Recent reports indicated the head of the Palestinian delegation, Issam Qishta, had been prevented from leaving Gaza by Israeli authorities.
“Israel did not give Issam Qishta a permit to leave Gaza and therefore he was not able to join the rest of the Olympic team in Brazil,” Munther Masalmeh, secretary-general of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, told Dpa news agency on Aug. 2, according to Al-Jazeera.
The spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, countered that the government was working to allow Qishta to join his team: “We do our best to let him leave as soon as possible.”
As if all of these hurdles weren’t trying enough, Palestine’s athletes had to travel to Brazil without any of their necessary equipment. Israel prevented those supplies, much of which was donated by foreign governments, from reaching occupied Palestine by enforcing taxes or excess fees — often in the name of security concerns.
“We got one shipment several months ago and we have not been able to bring it in,” Masalmeh explained. “We were forced to travel without our equipment and to buy them instead in Brazil.”
These sometimes crushing handicaps faced by Palestine’s Olympians prove an endurance and inextinguishable strength of spirit. Despite the duress of apartheid conditions present in their homeland, Palestinians are now proudly representing their country in Rio as a united force to be reckoned with, albeit not necessarily through a trove of medals.
“It’s a good chance to represent Palestine, to tell the world that Palestine is there and that one day Palestine will be free,” Palestinian sports journalist Umar Hammad told CBC News. “To tell the world our story through sports, to tell the world our culture, our daily life.”
Images of the opening ceremony in Rio evidenced the Palestinian team’s accomplishments by reminding the world each competitor faces unique challenges in making it to the Olympics — struggles many world athletes might never overcome in a similar situation.
“There is a lot of pride in our team,” said Hammad. “Not to win medals, but to represent the Palestinian people.”