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Olympic stadium Beijing Photo: AP
Olympic stadium Beijing Photo: AP
 
 

From Jenin to Beijing

Palestinian Olympic team struggles against PA's unwillingness to support athletes, Israel's begrudging of permits. With no money to buy shoes, no pool to practice swimming, how can athletes train for big event?

Zadok Yehezkeli
Published: 04.05.08, 20:12 / Israel Culture

Gadir Garouf is a 17-year old runner for the Palestinian Olympic team, and according to many, the most promising talent being sent to Beijing on the team. However, she has been training in her old sneakers, unable to afford even a pair of running shoes. Her coach, Yusuf Hamed, managed to put a few pennies together to buy her a pair of shoes three years ago, but Garouf keeps them stowed away in her closet until the big day, refusing to take the chance of damaging them beforehand.

 

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"I can see the medal," she whispers. "I know it's impossible, but I can dream, can't I?" And perhaps the name 'dream team' is most suitable for this team of athletes, as dreams are what they cling to in a country that continually neglects them, with a government that refuses to fund them. The Palestinian Authority's Olympic budget doesn't even allow for athlete vitamin supplements, which cost a whopping $75.

 

A fish out of water

The team's swimmer, Zakiya Nassar, is in an even bigger bind. She is the only Olympic candidate to see a swimming pool once a month at best. Lately she has been crying a lot, terrified by the prospect of shaming herself and her nation. "Instead of being happy, I'm living in a nightmare. I refuse to do shamefully and come in last, with everyone saying I nearly drowned," she said.

 

"It's killing me," she continued. "Do you know how the pool in Beijing will look to me after swimming in such a tiny pool once a month? Like an ocean. And the PA doesn't care, as long as I'm there representing Palestine. They won't even get me special permits from the Israelis to go from Jenin to Jerusalem, to practice in a long pool, as if it's solely my problem."

 

A political statement

Her coach, Ibrahim Tahwil, who also accompanied the Palestinian team to the Athens Olympics, feels Nassar's pain. Since the Palestinians were first allowed to enter the event in Atlanta, the Authorities have been taking advantage of the free ticket granted by the International Olympic Committee to send four athletes to the event, without any necessary criteria. So it happens that the fastest long-distance Palestinian runner, Nader Masri, has a personal best 5000 meter time of 14:24, almost a minute behind the Olympic qualifying time. But the free political statement the athletes make, marching with the Palestinian flag during the opening ceremony, is priceless to the PA.

 

But Tahwil believes that the athletes should not be treated as a mere political statement. "Once, when Arafat was alive," he reminisces, "I would go to him and he would give orders to grant me funds. He understood that sport could bring honor to the Palestinians. But Abbas doesn't do anything to help."

 

'Don't ruin my Oplympic dream'

Runner Nader Masri is also crying for help, however he requires the assistance to come from the Israelis patrolling the borders. For practice on the 5000 meter race he has been running around his neighborhood every day, hoping against hope to receive permission to leave Gaza for Jericho, where he could train with Yusuf Hamed.

 

Masri has tried to get across the blockades numerous times. "I beg them, let me out. Don't ruin my Olympic dream. I'm 28, and I have been running for 10 years for this. It has nothing to do with politics. Please."

 

Palestinian Sports Ministry official Mohammed Sbeihat said he applied for an exit permit for Masri in January, and sent followup letters outlining the urgency of the case. Shadi Yassin, an Israeli army spokesman, said the application was indeed received, but that it was presented as a general request, not one for participation in the Olympic Games. Yassin said Israeli officials were now working to approve the permit.

 

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