JERUSALEM For the two Palestinian swimmers
traveling to the Beijing Olympics, simply being at the Games
will be an achievement.
Hamza Abdu can sometimes train in a 25-meter pool but there
are no Olympic standard (50-meter) pools in the Palestinian
territories. Israeli travel restrictions prevent team mate
Zakaya Nassar from training in Nazareth.
Abdu is looking forward to experiencing the Olympic spirit
in August but knows the Games could be a chastening experience.
"We must represent ourselves in the same way that other
countries do. I expect to do my best," Abdu, a diminutive
17-year-old, told Reuters.
Palestinians first flew their flag symbolically at the 1996
Games in Atlanta but there were no athletes. They had two
representatives in Sydney in 2000 and three in Athens in 2004
and, despite modest performances, got a rapturous welcome.
None of the four current Palestinian team members have
attained the minimum qualifying standard to compete in Beijing
and they will participate under rules for fledgling nations.
Distance runner Nader al-Masri, the only representative
from the Gaza Strip, and sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof from Jericho
make up the four.
Abdu, from Jerusalem, has been swimming since he was four
and has shown promise on the few occasions he has participated
His personal best time of 56 seconds in the 100 meters
freestyle is, in swimming terms, light years slower than
Frenchman Alain Bernard's world record of 47.50 which was set
Coach Ibrahim Tawil said a lack of funding and the
restrictions on travel made it impossible for athletes like
Abdu to improve.
"There are many important events where our swimmers need to
participate in order to improve but there is no money, so we
cannot send them to competitions," Tawil said.
"We do get money to send swimmers to the Olympics but what
can we achieve if there has been no proper preparation? What is
No official funding is forthcoming from the cash-strapped
Palestinian Authority. Tawil said he was never certain if his
charges would be able to get to events although, in some cases,
a private donor might agree to fund flights.
"Our federation tries to cover the cost of taking the
swimmers to train at 50-metre pools in west Jerusalem but this
is not enough. They need to train in the morning and in the
afternoon but this is too expensive," he said.
Tawil said the Israeli swimming association had tried to
help but he believed that real progress for his swimmers could
come only after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settled.
"The chairman of the Israeli swimming association is dying
to help us and to cooperate with us but until there is a proper
peace agreement between the sides it cannot be effective," said
Tawil, who studied at Israel's leading sports academy.
As a Jerusalem resident, Abdu has freedom of movement
throughout Israel and can therefore train in Israeli
Nassar, his 19-year-old colleague, is less fortunate
because she has no regular pool in which to train.
Bethlehem-born Nassar, who will compete in the 50 meters
freestyle, is a university student in the northern West Bank
town of Jenin.
Jenin has no pools, according to Tawil. Even in Bethlehem,
150 km to the south, Nassar has only a tiny pool so proper
training is impossible.
Tawil says Nassar's attempts to prepare for Beijing have
been hampered by Israel, which has so far refused to allow her
to travel to train in the major Arab-Israeli town of Nazareth,
not far from Jenin.
"For months we have been trying to gain a travel permit but
so far without success," Tawil said.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Robert Woodward)