The Palestine Olympic team has arrived in London. Made up of five athletes, it is the largest team Palestine has ever sent to the summer Olympics.
The athletes are Maher Abu Remeleh, a judo champion; Baha Al-Farra, a 400m runner; Woroud Sawalha, an 800m runner; Sabine Hazboun, a 50m freestyle swimmer; and Ahmed Gebrel, also competing in the 50m freestyle swimming.
Palestine has participated in the Olympics since the 1996 games in Atlanta. It sends its athletes under an invitation from the International Olympic Committee, which exempts developing nations from having to meet the qualifying standard. While four of the five athletes are competing under these rules, Remeleh made history this year by becoming the first Palestinian to qualify for the Games on merit.
Given that the athletes are, for the most part, below the qualifying standard, medals are unlikely, but they are driven by the thrill of representing Palestine on the international stage. While they are keen to attend the Olympics as sportsmen and sportswomen, it is inevitable that politics follows them wherever they go. The fact of their participation is symbolically important for Palestinians; a statement that their nation exists and can take part in this global event.
Al-Farra is the only contestant from Gaza. Training in cheap running shoes along busy, bumpy roads, he has to dodge potholes and traffic. The harsh blockade on Gaza means that food shortages are common, and the expensive, protein heavy diet required for an Olympic athlete is difficult to come by. Given these circumstances, it is unlikely that Al-Farra will close the gap between his personal best of 49.04 seconds and the 43.75 that 2008’s gold medallist achieved. The lack of facilities is a source of frustration for some; Nader El Masri, who competed in the 500m at the Beijing Olympics and also hails from Gaza, has said that he knows he could cut seconds off his time if he were able to train in a proper stadium. Nevertheless, Al-Farra is happy to be representing his nation. “It’s a beautiful feeling, both as an athlete and a Palestinian,” he told the Guardian. “I will be taking a message from the Palestinians to the greatest games on earth: that Palestine exists despite our difficult circumstances.”
This feeling runs deep. London 2012 coincides with the holy month of Ramadan, presenting a dilemma for Muslim athletes. The four Muslims in Team GB have all decided to postpone their fasts or provide meals for the poor instead. The Palestinian judo champion, Remeleh, has said that he will not fast, telling the Times: “I asked scholars who recommended that I should not fast. They say that I represent a nation and not just myself, so when I return from the Games I will have to make up for it.” It is interesting that even religious authorities place such importance on his performance in the Olympics.
The Palestinian Olympic committee drew some criticism in sections of the Israeli press for refusing an offer to use training facilities; “There are more than 6,000 Palestinians in their [Israeli] prisons,” said Hani Halabi, the head of the Palestinian delegation. “With the occupation and the prisons, I cannot train in judo with Israel.” This demonstrates the impossibility of any apolitical action for Palestinians in the public eye. Yet with the Games about to begin, these athletes will be looking forward to the opportunity to draw attention to their country for something other than conflict and occupation. That is surely better than any medal.
Shamiul Joarder – Friends of AlAqsa