A Palestinian’s dream of reaching the Rio Olympics
A 25-year-old sprinter from Hebron is defying major obstacles to fulfil his dreams of reaching the Olympics.
It is early morning in Ramallah and Mohammed al-Khatib is busy warming up before a training session at the local school running track.
The 25-year-old aspires to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a professional athlete. He also wants to do it for Palestine.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Khatib, who plans to run the 100-200m sprint double. The West Bank lacks facilities for athletes and restriction of movement makes it difficult to plan ahead and travel for competitions.
Gaza’s crippling infrastructure owing to the blockade means shiny stadiums and modern tracks are out of the question for practice. Israeli forces bombed the enclave’s Palestine Stadium in 2006 and then again during Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012.
“I want to win an Olympic medal for Palestine. I know it’s the hardest thing to do, but I’m going to try,” Khatib told Al Jazeera.
“To represent Palestine at the Olympics is bringing hope to my people.”
Khatib is from Hebron, where around 170,000 Palestinian inhabitants feel Israel’s occupation at its worst. The area remains tense, with illegal settlements dividing the heart of the city between the Israeli-controlled sector known as H2 and H1 for Palestinians.
In West Bank and Gaza, sports enthusiasts are all too familiar with the result of the occupation on their training. Equipment is difficult to obtain and travel restrictions create further obstacles for athletes.
Competing in international games is frustrating for Palestinians because they usually need a two-day head-start to fly from Jordan and back, typically resulting in a lengthy wait at checkpoints.
WATCH: Blind karate kid dreams of representing Palestine
Last May, the Palestinian national football team was held at the Allenby Crossing on the Jordanian border for “security reasons” hours after Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu had vowed to ease travel restrictions on players.
In 2014, key runners from Gaza including Olympian Nader al-Masri, a veteran of 40 international competitions, were denied entry to the West Bank to participate in the annual Palestine marathon.
“When I think about Israel, I think about injustice and inequality for sure. We share the same land but when you see it so clearly, on one side they have a clean, beautiful football field and the other side, we barely have water to plant our own plants, never mind grass in a football field.
“I find this frustrating and it’s an injustice. This is one of the messages I carry.”
Because there are no professional coaches in the West Bank, Khatib started training alone by teaching himself running techniques through YouTube.
His workouts were limited to the streets or, occasionally, when he was able to get access to the tracks at Birzeit University or the local high school in Ramallah.
“When the tracks weren’t open, I would train on the streets,” he said. “Access to the school was either early in the morning – before classes started around 6am – or after the school day was finished at 4pm, and usually I would have work at this time or I would be tired.”
The asphalt track in Birzeit is only 84m in length and not suitable because it can cause injuries owing to the rough surface.
‘I am so close’
Despite all that, Khatib still persevered.
“I knew I had two options. I would either start blaming the world for not having a decent track or equipment and I would just give up. Or I would try to find my way around it and that’s what I did.”
In three years, Khatib has brought his 100m time down from 15 to 11 seconds, which is just off the 10.16 seconds required to qualify for the Games.
“I know a lot of athletes in Palestine face all these difficulties and at some point they give up. I almost gave up at one stage, but it’s really just about going forward regardless if I’m crawling, walking or running.
“I just keep going forward and here I am, I’m so close.”
In order to fulfil his potential and stand a realistic chance, he raised money online by crowdfunding to train with a coach in the US – taking a step closer to qualifying as such opportunities are not readily available in Palestine.
Through the various sums of foreign aid, which the Palestinian Authority is heavily reliant on, little goes towards sports.
The European Union in January approved a €2m ($2.2m) grant towards social infrastructure for communities in Area C – comprising 60 percent of West Bank land currently controlled by Israeli security forces – but the funds will build schools, roads and water networks.
The Palestine Olympic Committee has been the official body representing these athletes since 1996. It lacks the manpower to establish proper training facilities for athletes but is working with the Olympic representatives to improve facilities across the region.
Players are detained or hindered when they move from one place to another and that won’t stop as long we live in these circumstances
“There is plenty of help from the International Olympic Committee for funding and training but funding alone doesn’t help,” Susan Shalabi Molano, spokeswoman for the Palestine Olympic Committee, said.
“Imagine if you receive the funds to construct a stadium and then you don’t get a permit from the Israelis to build it. What is the use then? We are trying, though. A little bit is better than nothing. The suffering continues but we are trying.”
Molano said building permission from Israeli authorities is rare and little progress has been made to improve the situation.
“When we want to get players from Gaza, for example, they go through Egypt and meet in some third country where they can train because access to the West Bank isn’t easy. It’s difficult and time-consuming but this is the only solution we have in the end.
“Players are detained or hindered when they move from one place to another and that won’t stop as long we live in these circumstances.”
Other athletes have felt the effect of Israeli occupation on their training. Palestinian swimmer Sabine Hazboun competed in the women’s 50m freestyle at London 2012, finishing with a personal best of 28.28 seconds.
The 21-year-old “met the real world there”, which was a huge contrast from the rundown swimming pools in her hometown of Bethlehem.
Hazboun moved to Barcelona, where she could train at a professional level as there was no sizeable pool available in the West Bank for her to practise in.
“I started swimming aged nine in an 18m pool. It started as a hobby but then I wanted to be more serious and eventually go to the Olympics.
“When I wanted to practise, I saw more obstacles because it’s so difficult, we don’t have the facilities like other countries. We need more gym facilities, we need swimming equipment and experienced coaches,” she said.
For now, back in Ramallah where Khatib prepares for his US trip, qualifying will be a victory against occupation and he isn’t going to put his running shoes down without a fight.