When thirty-two-year-old Majdi Abu Marahil crossed the finish line in the men’s 10,000-meter race at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and thus became the first Palestinian athlete to compete in the leading international sports event, a decades-long struggle to have Palestine participate in the Olympics came to an end. The runner, born in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and whose training often consisted of a daily twenty kilometer run from his home to the Erez border checkpoint which he crossed to work as a day laborer in Israel, fulfilled his dream and the dream of many Palestinians: participating as equals on the world stage. His participation truly embodied a victory over the adversary, in the sport arena and beyond.
In the twenty-four years since the Atlanta games, twenty-two Palestinian sportsmen and sportswomen have taking part in six Olympics and though there are still many obstacles, the nation’s participation in the worldwide tournament is no longer questioned. Achieving this was the culmination of a long road and relentless efforts by Palestinian activists and their international allies. They had to overcome a lack of funds and training facilities, Israeli blockades and bombings, and religious and cultural prejudices. Becoming a member of The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and getting to participate in the Olympic games (as well as in other international tournaments such as The World Cup) was a long process that mirrored Palestinian efforts to be regarded as a sovereign nation and take its rightful place in international sporting events as well as in other international realms. In this essay, we will focus on the history of Palestine in the Olympics.
In 1995, the Palestinian Olympic Committee joined the International Olympic Committee, it was a result of the ongoing efforts which have been waged in the international arena since the 1970s throughout the 1990’s. These efforts went parallel with Palestine’s efforts to join the International Federation of Football (Fédération Internationale de Football Association FIFA).
In 1933 the Palestine Olympic Committee was founded by the Jewish Maccabi Sports Association applied to admit POC in the International Olympic Committee. However, its application was rejected because it represented only the Maccabi organization and was not fully representative of all communities (Moslem and Christian), which is not in accordance with the IOC rules. The demand for inclusivity and equality promoted Maccabi to recruit to its executive committee the Muslim Haifa businessman Ali al-Mustaqim, and also a Christian official to represent the Arab community.
The inclusion of several Arab members helped the POC gain admission into the IOC in 1934. This Arab participation was however short-lived. The Zionists viewed establishing athletic federations and committees as a means of achieving overall Zionist goals of establishing and legitimating Zionist claims to Palestine. Later, this committee received an invitation to participate in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936; however, it was rejected because of the persecution of Jews by the German Nazis. The Zionist-oriented POC proposed that Palestine might compete if all Jewish athletes in the world were permitted to register to compete for Palestine as the birthplace of the Jewish nation.
The Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was a big blow to Palestinian sports. However, living in such conditions in the Diaspora has not deterred Palestinians to continue their sports activities and seek to join international sports federations. In 1962 the Palestine Sports Federation was established in Gaza. Its main interest was focused on Palestine’s admission to FIFA.
In 1968, a decision was made by the PLO to form the Palestine Supreme Council for Youth Care. In 1969, few branch committees were established in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. After 1970, the headquarters of this committee was moved from Amman to Lebanon. In 1974 it was renamed “Palestine Supreme Council for Youth and Sports.”
The ‘actual’ Palestine Olympic Committee POC was established in 1974, during the meeting of the Supreme Committee for Youth and Sports. It was directly under the supervision of the Executive Office of Youth and Sport and was run by its members. In order to gain recognition from the IOC, the POC began coordinating with the Federation of Arab National Olympic Committees, formed in 1976. POC was accepted as a member of this Federation.
It is clear that the statutes and the basic law of the POC were formed and designed specially to facilitate the acceptance of the application to join the IOC. The first time the Palestine Olympic Committee (POC) applied to join the IOC was in 1979. The main obstacle before the POC was the claim by IOC that the POC does not represent a regional area that is internationally recognized. That was also the reason behind the rejection of the Palestine Football Association PFA by FIFA. The IOC did not take into consideration the conditions in which the Palestinians live, such as the Diaspora [Shatat], and the inability of all Palestinians to live on their homeland – Palestine. Despite the new conditions the Palestinians were going through (after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982), the POC in 1984 continued to apply to join the IOC (the year that the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles).
Later, the presidents of the Palestine sports associations and members of the international associations were invited to attend the meeting of the General Assembly of Sports Associations. The members of the Palestinian delegation could not obtain the visas to enter the United States, though they were invited officially by the international federations. The President of the Asian Olympic Committee helped in convincing the committee, which had organized the meeting, as well as the American Embassy in Kuwait, to give visas to the delegation to enter the United States. Once they arrived in the United States, the delegation began to move in different directions; it had a few interviews with the media and met with other delegations that took part in these games.
Unfortunately, despite all these efforts, the POC could not join the IOC. However, during the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988, it was accepted as a member in the Asian Olympic Committee (which was a great victory). Baghdad hosted the location of the new headquarters of POC; it was located in the Palestine Sports Club (in Baghdad).
The Palestinians strived continuously to join the IOC; a plethora of letters sent by the POC to the IOC requesting to accelerate this process. All attempts were not in vain, in 1989, the POC took another direction in achieving this goal. In order to get solidarity from international federations, it contacted the teams of the French Sports Workers Federation and the Italian Association for Popular Sports. The Palestinian national team met with these two teams, in these two countries. The Italian Association’s President announced that a few popular Italian athletes signed a petition demanding the approval of the membership of POC in the IOC, especially after the Declaration of an Independent Palestinian state in Algeria. However, these efforts did not succeed.
The Palestine Olympic Committee was recognized as a member of the Olympic Council of Asia in 1986. In 1990, the POC received an invitation to take part in the Asian Olympic Games in China. In Monaco, on the 101st Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it ratified the decision taken by the IOC Executive Board on September 18, 1993, to grant provisional IOC recognition to the Palestinian Olympic Committee. This gave Palestine the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in the United States; it was the start of their entry into the international arena. In 1995, POC was recognized as a permanent member of IOC.
Some opponents believe that Palestine has no right to membership in IOC and FIFA, claiming that it does not meet the definition of independent country status; that there are eight criteria accepted by the international community used to determine whether an entity is an independent country or not. As International Law Scholar M. Akehurst notes, there is general agreement in the international community that an independent state must possess certain characteristics in order to be internationally recognized. These include a determinable territory; a fixed population; a functioning government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Fellow legal scholar Francis A. Boyle – who from 1991 – 1992 served as legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Negotiations – has studied Palestinian claims for statehood and concluded that these criteria are met, despite the special circumstances of Palestinian history, and that the United Nation Charter article 80 and League Covenant article 22 (section 4) substantiate this.
Palestine’s first participation in the Olympics was in Atlanta in 1996. Maher Abu Rmeileh a 28 years old Judoka was the first athlete reached the qualifying standards. Abu Rmeileh carried the hope of his people and the Palestinian flag at the opening ceremony in London 2012. In an interview he said:
“I am proud to fly high the Palestinian flag during the ceremony; this is an affirmation that we Palestinians exist and hope our state will be one day as other sovereign states around the world.”
The relative underperformance of Arab nations in the Olympics can be explained by a number of variables such as finance, demography, sporting culture, policy and governance. In Palestine beside political conditions that resulted from the Israeli occupation, there were a number of obstacles stood in from Palestinian athletes who participated in the Olympics. Among them was the lack of financial and moral support and the shortage of facilities.
Baha’ al-Farra, the fifth Palestinian runner who took part in the London Olympics in 2012 told Sam Sports:
“I was so glad when I knew that I was chosen to represent Palestine in one of the biggest athletic games in the world. Since that day I am looking forward to presenting a very positive participation to Palestine and me. I will do everything I could to be in the best shape. I train myself every day in one of the halls and the streets in Gaza, there is no track in all Palestine. We are prohibited from training in the municipal track (earth-soil track) because Gaza Municipality demands that we have to pay monthly fees for this purpose. However, we will not get desperate, we still struggle to maintain our fitness and improve our results… Now I am training once a day in the evening because of the lack of a track. I am desperately waiting for the training camp which will give me the opportunity to increase my training and practice competing with other athletes.”
Majid Abu Marahil, the first runner who took part in Atlanta 1996 in 10 km and coach of Palestine’s national team and companion of Al-Farra’s to London urged all the officials in the Municipality of Gaza to give him and the national team the ability to practice without any conditions that include fees. He said that in general the athlete is a representative of Palestine, and it is a great honor for everyone to see Palestine exists in the biggest international gathering.
The coach Ibrahim Abu Hasira who discovered al-Farrah said: “We as coaches lack conditions to refine the athletes. Athletes, especially in Palestine, need to communicate (compete) with other athletes in order to prepare Olympic athletes so they can honorably present in Palestine.”
Olympic times for track and field athletes are timed on a digital timer. They use starting blocks and race on a track that is made from a synthetic rubber called Tartan, for which they use spiked shoes to run the track. The POC does not provide athletes with adequate training tools for its athletes, and they have chosen athletes in the past who did not have qualifying scores. Instead, they chose wildcard athletes to attend the last five Summer Olympic Games. Having a great desire to compete at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro 2016, a young athlete Mohamed al-Khatib said he has gone to the POC four times since 2013, and each time they told him he would never make it, that making the Olympics required “good genetics” and qualifying time, but he never let it discourage him.
He said, “They’d break me for a second, but as soon as I left, I’d say, ‘No, God is bigger. If it is genetics, he can make me do it. And I’m not going to go back there until I have a [qualifying time]. They want to talk numbers, then I’ll give them a number.’” The POC International Relations office commented that it could be possible to participate by qualifying score and time; however, we suffer from a lack of means and equipment. The POC is working hard on changing that. We have been promised by the International Olympic Committee that [they] will provide us with all necessary facilitation to establish the track field in Palestine very soon.
Another committee that was the pride of Palestine is the Palestinian Federation for the Disabled, it was established in 1993 on behalf of a group of injured and disabled victims of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, together with rehabilitation experts from Abu Raya Center – Ramallah, and funded by the Palestinian Ministry for Youth and Sports and the Palestinian Olympics Committee. Its purpose is to enhance the skills and abilities of people with disabilities through sports.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Palestine Paralympic Committee PPC is the high cost of specialized equipment to enable people with disabilities to participate in sports activities. Much effort goes into fundraising in order to ensure that appropriate equipment is available. The PPC’s main focus at present is to raise awareness of the importance of sports activities for people with disabilities through specialized training programs, workshops, and the formation of committees in various areas throughout Palestine. In Paralympics, Palestine’s first participation came at the Sidney Paralympics in 2000, where Husam Azzam won bronze in the shot-put event and a silver in Athens. Mohamed Fannuna won the bronze medal in long jump in Athens in 2004.
They also face obstacles such as the lack of facilities and support for the officials. As an example, Khamis Zaqout from Gaza, who lost the use of his legs while working on a building site in Israel two decades ago, trains in a park in Gaza City, one of the very few green areas in the cramped coastal enclave on the eastern Mediterranean that has borders with Israel and Egypt. “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.
Olympics for Palestinians constituted a new step in perceiving sports as part of an enhanced national identity and consciousness. Obviously, the Palestinian Authority became aware that achieving national-political targets could not be accomplished without the integration of all other aspects: economic, social, and cultural, which must include sports and scouting. Also, Palestine as one of the Arab countries and as other developing nations want to move from “the periphery” to “the center” of the Olympic movement.
Since the Atlanta games, Palestinian athletes have participated in every Olympics. These included, in Sydney 2000, swimmer Samar Nassar and twenty Kilometer walker Rami Deib Abdel Hami; In Athens, 2004, Abdal Salam Al-Dabaji (Men’s 800m run,) Saana Abubkheet (Women’s 800m run) and swimmer Rad Aweisat (Men’s 100m butterfly); In Beijing, 2008, the runners Nader Almassri (men’s 5,000m) and Gharid Ghrouf (women’s 100m), and the swimmers Hamza Abdo (men’s 50m freestyle) and Zakiya Nassari (women’s 50m freestyle); In London, 2012, the runners Baha Alfarra (Men’s 400m) and Woroud Sawalha (Women’s 800m), the swimmers Ahmed Jibril (Men’s 50m freestyle) and Sabine Hazboun (Women’s 50m freestyle) and the judoka, Maher Abu Rmeileh. While results have been poor, the importance placed on Palestinian participation in the Olympics is indicated by the enthusiasm in which the athletes have been greeted by the Palestinian public and by the plans to increase participation in future tournaments.
The Palestinians sent their largest-ever delegation to compete in the Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil, in 2016, but fewer than half of its athletes were born in the West Bank or Gaza, and only two qualified by merit. Of the six Palestinians who competed, three were German descent and one was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. Two of the athletes were swimmers, another two were runners, one was a judoka and another is a dressage rider.
– Issam Khalidi is an independent scholar living in Monterey, California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900-1948 (in Arabic), One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine (in Arabic and English), co-edited Soccer in the Middle East (Rutledge.), as well as articles and essays on the subject of sports included at www.hpalestinesports.net