By Ramzy Baroud
To run a full marathon experts suggest that the aspiring athlete requires at least six months of rigorous training, proper gear, a particular diet, regular check-ups, mental focus and preparation, and a variety of gadgets depending on one’s budget. Ironically, the poorest countries in Africa have also produced some of the world’s best marathon runners.
I never imagined running a full marathon myself. Only when my doctor advised me, following back surgery over a year ago, that I should not walk more than 20 minutes at a time did I decide to run one. And I have.
Human nature is strange. Our weaknesses can sometimes turn into a launch pad for our most triumphant moments. My running "career", however, started in the Gaza Strip. As early as my elementary years in the Nuseirat refugee camp I was habitually chased, along with many school children, by Israeli troops. Running the distance meant dodging a bullet and reaching home alive. My greatest running moment was in high school, though, when I outran a military jeep. Along with my younger brother and a cousin, our goal was to reach a citrus orchard by the Gaza Valley before being run over. As bullets whizzed all around we made our final leap into a thicket. Bleeding from my face and arm after colliding with thorns and branches I looked triumphantly at the rest but said nothing. That day we won more than gold. We won life.
When four Palestinian athletes marched with the Palestinian flag into the Olympic Games in Beijing it was a statement, a declaration of sorts, that Palestinians insist on their right to exist on equal footing with the rest of the world, to raise their flag without fear and wear their country’s name spelled out the way it should be, not as a Palestinian Authority but as Palestine. The 1.5 million Palestinians living in besieged Gaza must have savoured that moment more than anyone else. One from amongst them, Nader Al-Masri, had a big smile on his face as he marched, nervously but proudly. Gaza lived a moment of freedom that day, one that even Israel couldn’t take away.
But the Olympics are, of course, not a singular idea. Its meanings are convoluted and they vary. Some NBC commentators seemed more interested in igniting Cold War fever as they cheered for their athletes. It was a nationalistic circus, courtesy of the world’s largest multinational corporations, catering to the sensibilities and prejudices of every nation, although they were all selling the same product in the end. While sports has long an avenue in which greater participation by women meant greater gender equality the fact that "sex sells" appeared to be a more dominant mantra that women’s rights. Olympic women role-models have already been featured in various Playboy editions. In many instances winning gold was no longer about national pride but access to contracts, endorsements, and millions of dollars of income.
Yet despite the political manipulation and corporate takeover of sports the human spirit continues to triumph. When Germany’s Matthias Steiner claimed a gold medal following a stupendous effort he raised his medal and a photo of Susann, his wife, who died in a car accident last year. Susann’s modest smile in the photo cannot be matched by the fake smiles of Nike’s top models combined.
And as Georgia and Russia embarked on a bloody fight that is seen by many as marking the beginning of a new Cold War, the ravenous struggle underway between Russia and Nato over influence in Eurasia, nothing could stain the beautiful moment when Nino Salukvadze, of Georgia hugged and kissed Russian rival Natalia Paderina after the latter won silver and the former bronze in shooting.
Holding true to family tradition, I cheered for athletes representing the poorest countries. What victory represents for an athlete whose running gear was a last minute donation is difficult to imagine. Al-Masri is from Beit Hanoun, a small, half-destroyed town on the border with Israel. He trains among the constant sound of bullets and shells. After many appeals involving the Israeli media the runner was allowed to leave his Gaza prison temporarily. Thanks to the help of Chinese coaches Al-Masri received a bit of training before embarking on his first competition. He returns to Gaza without medals. His resilience, his insistence on hope under the most desperate of circumstances will not generate him much by way of money or contracts, but it will comfort his countrymen.
For Al-Masri, and all the athletes who participated in the Beijing Olympics as an embodiment of a noble idea, as ambassadors of hope, of equality and of dignity, they crossed the finishing line the moment they refused to kneel to adversity or surrender to despair. This is not rhetorical pandering and is something that can only be understood by those who have been told that they are not worthy enough, maybe because they are not of the right skin colour, nationality, gender, or come from the wrong part of the world.
Gaza cannot wait to greet returning Al-Masri, whose stories of the Great Wall and the grandeur and wonders of China are likely to be unequalled in a place used to the same old stories: of siege, Israeli incursions and violence. Al-Masri’s town will certainly take a time away from grief, and rejoice the return of its champion. A Palestinian poet once wrote: "Our celebrations will plant us firmly into the earth." Beit Hanoun will live up to that promise.
-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).