Occupation and Olympics

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 with one's physician, mental focus and preparation, and all sorts of gadgets depending on one's budget. Ironically, the poorest countries in Africa have also produced some of the world's best marathoners.

By Ramzy Baroud (Palestine Chronicle)

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Published: Wed 27 Aug 2008, 10:26 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:11 AM

I would have never imagined running a full marathon myself. Only when my doctor advised me, with a somber, regretful tone that I should not walk more than 20 minutes at a time, following back surgery over a year ago, I decided to run one. And I have.

Human nature is strange that way. Our weakest points can possibly 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; 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 or heavy fine — to wear their country's name — spelled out the way it should be, not as a Palestinian Authority, but Palestine — and to proudly compete. The 1.5 million Palestinians living in besieged Gaza must've savored 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 cannot take away.

But the Olympics are, of course, not a singular idea with a singular intellectual representation. Its meanings are convoluted and they vary. Some NBC commentators seemed more interested in igniting Cold War fever as they cheered for their athletes, as other world media commentators have also done. It was a nationalistic circus, courtesy of the world's largest multinational corporations, catering to the sensibilities and prejudices of every nation, although selling the same product in the end.

Moreover, while sports has been for long an avenue in which greater women participation meant greater gender equality, the fact that "sex sells" appeared to be a more dominant mantra that women 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 winning contracts, endorsements, and millions of dollars of unwarrantable income.

But despite the political manipulation and the increasing corporate takeover of sports, the human spirit continues to triumph. When Germany's Matthias Steiner claimed a gold medal following a legendary effort in the super heavyweight category, 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, not even by all the fake smiles of Nike's top models combined.

And as Georgia and Russia embarked on a bloody fight that is seen as the beginning of a new Cold War and signaled the ravenous struggle underway between Russia and Nato over influence in Eurasia, nothing was to stain a beautiful moment, as Nino Salukvadze, of Georgia, hugged and kissed Russian rival Natalia Paderina after the latter won silver and the former bronze in the game of 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 cannot be described by mere words. Al-Masri, of Gaza is the son of Beit Hanoun, a small half-destroyed town at the border with Israel. One need not say much to describe training among the constant sounds 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 run. 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 will comfort and promise Beit Hanoun better days without siege or bullets.

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 finish line the moment they refused to kneel to adversity or surrender to despair. This is not rhetorical pandering, and 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 part of the world.

Gaza sure cannot wait to greet returning Al-Masri, whose stories of the Great Wall and grandeur and wonders of China will 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 certainly live up to that promise.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an eminent Arab American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com

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