JAKARTA, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Mera Abushammaleh was born and lives in Jordan but at the Asian Games in Jakarta on Sunday, the 16-year-old was proudly swimming for Palestine.
The Palestinians have been represented at the Asiad since 1990 winning only a single bronze medal through light heavyweight boxer Munir Abu-Keshek in Busan 12 years ago.
Abushammaleh looks unlikely to add to that tally after posting the 21st fastest time in the heats of her first event but the teenager believes her presence has a greater purpose than just the quest for sporting success.
“I get to show people around the world that Palestine can do something and we’re still here, we’re not going to go anywhere because of the war,” she said on the deck after swimming in the fourth heat of the 100 metres breaststroke on Sunday.
“I’m very proud that I can show people that Palestine is here, that I can do something despite all the obstacles.”
Abushammaleh and her team mates received a rapturous reception from the crowd when they marched beneath the flag of Palestine at Saturday’s opening ceremony in Jakarta, capital of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
“It was very nice,” she said. “When we were walking, all the Indonesian people were shouting ‘Go Palestine!’. That was so heart-warming.”
Palestine was recognised as a member of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) in 1986, four years after Israel, which had competed at the Asian Games from 1954 to 1974, was finally permanently excluded.
That three of the five-strong Palestine swimming team in Jakarta are from the diaspora was merely a reflection of the tough conditions for aspiring athletes in the territory, she thought.
“I live in Jordan but I visit Palestine sometimes but it’s difficult to train. There are not a lot of people competing because we have such difficulties,” she added.
“We don’t have any (50-metre) pools. We only have one 25-metre pool. There’s only two coaches. We don’t have championships, we don’t have gyms.”
Abushammaleh, who is registered for three more events in Jakarta, swam a personal best time of one minute 20.70 in her 100 breaststroke heat, good enough to beat Aishath Hulva Khulail of the Maldives and avoid last place in heat four.
While it was a long way short of being good enough to progress to the final, Abushammaleh is confident she will improve with experience and one day hopes to win Palestine a medal.
“This is my first time competing in such a competition, in this race,” she said. “I expected better than this but next time I’ll do better.” (Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)