Last updated: 27 July, 2012

Palestinian athletes live Olympic dream

Far from the media’s eye, hidden from sponsors and even proper running tracks, are athletes living an Olympic dream in conflict areas such as the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

Overcoming deadly street violence and protracted travel problems on a daily basis, among other things, have failed to dent the ambition of a handful of runners.

There are two Palestinian track athletes on board for the London Games which get under way on Saturday, Bahaa al-Farra (men’s 400m) and Woroud Sawalha (women’s 800m).

And coach Majed Abumarahil was realistic in what he expected of his two charges when they start rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt.

“It is very difficult to train in Palestine,” Abumarahil said. “There are no playgrounds and training facilities.

“The environment is not comfortable to train in, you can see soldiers everywhere and there is always violence. It is hard to feel comfortable.”

The duo, Abumarahil said, often travelled outside the Palestinian territories to take advantage of better training facilities.

“We have to travel to other Arab countries like Egypt, Qatar and Jordan to train. It is better there,” he said.

Abumarahil also explained his laborious travels from his base in the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, the two Palestinian territories separated by Israel and kept under heavy security.

“I am from Gaza and the girl is from Nablus in the West Bank. I have to travel from Gaza to meet her for training,” he said.

“The problem is, I have to pass a lot of security checks and I have to explain who I am and what I am doing every time.

“There is Israel between Gaza and Nablus, that makes things very difficult for me. The better way to avoid this is to travel abroad and train there. That is why we went to other Arab countries.”

It is a similar story for sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, the only woman in Afghanistan’s athletics team at the London Games.

“I know getting a medal in the Olympics is very difficult, but I am here to open a new way for the women of Afghanistan,” said Kohistani, who competes in long black trousers, long sleeves and a head scarf.

“In Afghanistan it is different from here in London. Every day I have to face a lot of problems when I go to training. All along there have been people who wanted to disturb me, to stop me.

“In my society there is no sport for females. My people do not accept sport for women; they think sport is not good for them.”

The 23-year-old said that the fact she had arrived at the Olympics meant she had accomplished one of her dreams.

“I don’t think I will qualify for the 100m finals, my time is not good enough,” Kohistani said.

“But I am going to run on competition day knowing that a lot of people will be watching me; those who like me and support me, and those who are not ready to support me and my sport.

“Being a Muslim female athlete is most important for me. I represent a country where every day there are suicide bomb blasts. It is important that a girl from such a country can be here.”

Palestinian coach Abumarahil was equally phlegmatic.

“My goal is already done,” he said. “Being here is the best thing. When I see my athletes’ name next to great names like (Usain) Bolt, (Asafa) Powell and (Kenenisa) Bekele, I will be the happiest person.”