Gaza runner Bahaa al-Farra treads carefully, braving the elements and potholed roads ravaged by years of conflict between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army, as he prepares to race at the London Olympics.
The 19-year-old trains for three hours a day in Gaza’s Yarmouk soccer stadium, along the dusty streets and on the beach in well-worn trainers that were donated to the Palestine Olympic Committee by wealthy Gulf state, Qatar.
Palestinian athletes complain of a paucity of financial support at home and a lack of vital equipment and coaches that are crucial for success and to nurture talented youth, but by competing in London, a national dream will be realized.
The Gaza Strip is a narrow coastal enclave in the eastern Mediterranean that borders on Israel and Egypt and which Palestinians want as part of a future state along with the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
In 2007, Islamist Hamas ousted Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from the strip in a brief and bloody civil war that split Palestinian society, but the two factions are currently trying to implement a signed reconciliation pact.
Abbas, who leads the more secular Fatah faction, holds sway in the West Bank.
Israel deems the Gaza Strip hostile territory and along with Egypt strictly controls access to it, limiting imports. Israel bans most travel through its crossings because Hamas and other militants who call for the Jewish state’s demise have launched attacks at Israeli towns from the territory.
The Palestinian flag first flew at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 when one athlete took part, Sydney 2000 welcomed two competitors and three went to Athens in 2004. All got a roaring welcome, but it was for participation rather than achievement.
A party of four travelled to Beijing four years ago - two track athletes and two swimmers - but as in previous Games, none got there by attaining the minimum Olympic qualifying standard, they were entered under rules for fledgling nations.
Four Palestinians will also participate in London. Joining Farra will be Cairo-based swimmer Ahmed Jabreel and two West Bank women, swimmer Sabeen Kharyoon from Bethlehem and runner Worood Maslaha from Nablus.
Hani al-Halabi from East Jerusalem who will head the Palestinian delegation, said the makeup of the current squad was representative of all Palestinians wherever they live.
“We want to embody the Palestinian issue by including participants from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the diaspora. Each of us represents a part of our home,” Halabi said.
Fantasy and reality
Farra, a 400 meters runner, said he could not wait to get to London and dreamt of standing on the winners’ podium.
“It’s going to be a beautiful feeling to represent Palestine ... like all the other athletes, I dream of winning a medal ... I hope to carry the flag and tell the world that regardless of all the difficulties, we exist”, he told Reuters.
But with a personal-best time of 49.04 seconds, almost six seconds slower than Michael Johnson’s world record of 43.18, and more than three seconds slower than the Olympic B-standard minimum qualifying time, Farra’s medal ambitions will remain a fantasy.
His top time was achieved at last year’s IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea where he finished 34th out of 37 starters.
Farra’s coach, 48-year-old Majed Abu Maraheel, who was the first Palestinian Olympian in Atlanta where he ran in the 10,000 meters, said Farra would be a source of pride for his countrymen
but that it was time to aspire to more meaningful achievements.
“Bahaa is still young and full of energy and defiance and I expect him to carry out his mission as required, but we need to rise above symbolic participation. We want to improve records but to do that we need of all the help we can get.”
Abu Maraheel treasures the trainers he wore in Atlanta and says he rescued them along with other trophies and mementos when his home was hit during Israel’s military offensive on the Gaza Strip three years ago.
“The house was hit ... and we escaped, but I made sure I took the shoes with me”, he said.
Farra needs $12,000 to finance his training and special diet in the final six-month buildup period to London but he has not seen a penny of funding, said Abu Maraheel, who will accompany him.
“Ideally, if we want to improve results we need to fund a two-year preparation plan to an Olympics or any major competition, but we don’t have a proper budget, we don’t have a track or other vital facilities. We are trying to achieve something out of nothing,” he said.
Farra said he realized the importance of what he was doing for his local community.
“In my neighborhood people know how important it is for one of their own to take part in such a competition and they are happy for me,” he said.
Abu Maraheel said participation in major sporting events was no less important than political struggle.
“We want to use sport as a language that everybody understands to tell the world that the Palestinian people exist,” he said.