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, which Palestinians want as part of a future state along with the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
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 traveled to Beijing four years ago — two track athletes and two swimmers — but as in previous Games, none got there by attaining the 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.
“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.
Farra, a 400m runner, said he could not wait to get to London and he dreams 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 said.
However, with a personal-best time of 49.04 seconds, 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 10,000m, 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,” he said.