Palestinian athletes train for Olympics despite cultural difficulties
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Darting down the bumpy streets of Gaza wearing a cheap pair of running shoes, Palestinian athlete Bahaa al-Farra dodges potholes and traffic as he trains to compete against the world's best athletes at the London Olympics.
Although an Olympic medal is highly unlikely, the 400-meter runner takes to the city streets for about three hours a day, speeding down crowded avenues in the morning before hitting the gym in the afternoon.
"It's not easy to be an athlete in Gaza," al-Farra said.
Al-Farra is one of a handful of athletes who will compete under the Palestinian flag at the London Olympics. Although little has changed since Palestinians first participated in the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games, they're now making the long-term investments they hope will bear results in a generation - building an Olympic-size swimming pool and asking for foreign aid for four large multipurpose gyms.
Four Palestinians will be headed to London for the 2012 Games, though none of them has reached Olympic qualifying standards, said Hani al-Halabi of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. Instead, they will be competing by invitation from the International Olympic Committee.
"I know that many people and experts say winning a medal is a fantasy, but I have a strong belief that nothing is impossible if you are determined," al-Farra said.
With medals unlikely, the athletes are mainly driven by the thrill of representing Palestine, even if they still live under full or partial Israeli control and their hopes of gaining independence remain unfulfilled after two decades of stop-and-go negotiations.
Al-Farra's coach, Majed Abu Maraheel, recalled his excitement of waving the Palestinian flag at the 1996 Olympics, just two years after Palestinians won limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the areas that are to make up Palestine, along with east Jerusalem.
"It sent a message to the world that the Palestinians also have the right to be in the games," said the 48-year-old Abu Maraheel, who competed in the 10,000 meters and finished 34th.
Al-Farra's personal best of 49.04 seconds in the 400 is more than 3 seconds slower than the Olympic minimum, but he hopes to get faster by the time he walks into the Olympic Stadium.
Starting in April, al-Farra and female teammate Wuroud Maslaha, a 19-year-old 800-meter runner from the West Bank city of Nablus, will train for three months in a fully equipped athletic camp in Qatar. Once there, al-Farra will get to wear real running shoes, like the spikes he received as a gift from Qatar for competitions.
At about the same time, 20-year-old swimmer Ahmed Jibril will be heading to Spain to join 17-year-old Sabine Hazboun in training. Hazboun competes in the 50-meter freestyle and 50 butterfly, while Jibril swims the 400 freestyle, the Palestinian Olympic Committee said.
Al-Farra, one of eight siblings, has a brother and a sister who also like to run. His sister had to stop when she became a teenager, in deference to conservative Gaza's strict social norms that frown on women running in public, but al-Farra's 11-year-old brother, not bound by such mores, now often runs alongside him.
Al-Farra started training in a local sports club seven years ago. Al-Farra prefers training in the streets because Gaza's outdoor track is often unavailable, since it serves many others, including school children and other athletes.
His mother has been supportive, he said, trying to serve healthy food despite the family's small income.
Framed pictures hanging on one of the walls of his family apartment show him at last year's world championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he finished last in his heat. This week, he is competing at the world indoor championships in Istanbul.
But medals will have to wait, according to al-Halabi, the Palestinian Olympic official.
The Olympic-size pool, being built in the West Bank town of Jericho, will be completed in four months, and the four gyms should be ready in two years, he said.
"To create an Olympic champion, you need at least 15 years," al-Halabi said. "We still don't have the required installations and proper budgets."