Wheelchair-bound Khamis Zaqout from Gaza, who lost the use of his legs while working on a building site in Israel two decades ago, is Palestine’s best hope for a Paralympic medal in London this month.
Zaqout will compete in the shot put, discus and javelin at the August 29-September 9 Games. Partially-sighted long-jumper Mohammed Fannouna, a bronze winner in Athens, will be Palestine’s second representative.
“We have crawled to the Paralympics. I have achieved an Asian record with the simple means that we have,” said Zaqout.
The pair were good enough to vie for medals, said Ala Shataly, a Palestinian Paralympic Committee member, whereas the Palestinians usually had only a symbolic presence in able-bodied sports.
The team had nothing to celebrate at the London Olympics, which ended on Sunday and where a judoka, two swimmers and two runners competed.
“We have always been competitive at the Paralympics where we strive for achievements and we have reached a stage where we cannot go backwards,” Shataly said.
“Zaqout is definitely going to win a medal,” he said, adding that Fannouna, who won two golds and three bronze medals in the Arab Games in Doha last year, was also capable of a podium finish.
Palestine have won three Paralympic medals: Hussam Azzam took a bronze in Sydney and a silver in Athens in the shot put and Fannouna captured the long-jump bronze in Athens.
Zaqout attained the qualifying distance for London in Doha where he won his category in the shot put with 10.77 metres, soon after setting an Asian record of 11.34.
Father-of-nine Zaqout, 47, was injured when he fell while working on a building site in Israel. He said his disability had made him determined to strive for sporting success.
“I am physically and mentally ready for this battle and to represent Palestine on the international stage,” he said.
Zaqout trains in a park in Gaza City, one of very few green areas in the cramped coastal enclave on the eastern Mediterranean that has borders with Israel and Egypt.
Palestinians want the strip as part of a future state, along with the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
In 2007, the Islamist Hamas group seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a brief civil war. Abbas, who leads the more secular Fatah movement, holds sway in the West Bank.
Israel deems the Gaza Strip hostile territory and, along with Egypt, strictly controls access to it. Shataly said athletes in Hamas-run Gaza received no support from official Palestinian organisations.
Zaqout wears out-moded, shabby clothes that are a far cry from the modern, high-tech attire that is standard for elite athletes.
In order to get maximum purchase, he ties his leg to his wheelchair and sways his body three times before propelling the shot and letting out a powerful grunt. His wheelchair is old but he hopes to have a new one before the Games.
“We face many challenges… We must train outside the Gaza Strip and we desperately need equipment. Nobody would ever believe that a champion could arrive in London without the appropriate clothing, or even a discus,” Zaqout said.