Seventeen-year-old Raed Awisat looks exhausted from his grueling practice session.
“I am very tense these days,” he says and for good reason. His training regime has been stepped up a notch lately. In a typical week, according to his father and trainer, Hussein, Raed takes to the pool eleven times, three hours at a time.
“I am undergoing a very intensive program,” says Raed, “in order to reach the required standard.”
The required standard is Olympic time. Raed Awisat is one of three Palestinian athletes who will carry the Palestinian flag at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and he will be the first Palestinian to compete in an Olympic swimming event in Athens. The other two –” Sana Bakheet and Abdel Salam Narishi –” will participate in the track and field events.
Raed was crowned one hundred meter Palestinian butterfly champion two months ago, though his time still falls somewhat below the Olympic qualification time. His Olympic spot was assured through allocation, but he and his father are determined to ensure that, come summer, Raed will be a competitor. In last August’s World Championships in Barcelona, the East-Jerusalemite teenager came 67th of 137 swimmers.
“Raed has been swimming since he was four years old,” says his father. “By the time he turned 10, he was competing in local Palestinian championships.”
Currently, Raed is training in the Jabal Mukkaber swimming pool. It’s not an ideal situation. The pool is only half-length, 25 meters, rather than the 50-meter pools that Raed will compete in in the summer.
The operating costs of the pool, which are paid wholly by locals, are high, reaching some NIS135,000 a year. But the biggest financial problem facing Raed might be solved. According to Hussein, rumors have it that “a Palestinian businessman who lives in the Gulf and has heard Raed’s story might sponsor him and cover the costs of his participation in the Olympics.”
Palestinian athletes competed in the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Games, but Omar Hussein Ali, secretary general of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, says he feels that the three participants representing Palestine at the upcoming Olympics is too little. The POC has nominated another five athletes in boxing, taekwondo, wrestling and rowing federations for approval.
“I must add, however,” concedes Ali, “that the reason these athletes have not been approved yet is because they have not completed any qualification tournaments, and did not do so, because they’ve fallen far short of required standards.”
Nevertheless, says Ali, he hopes Palestinian athletes will get special dispensation for the situation they find themselves in. The last three years of the Intifada have been devastating for Palestinian sports. Several top Palestinian athletes have been killed, including national soccer player Tareq Al Qatto, handball coach, Jamal Sabbagh, and champion bodybuilder Azzam Muzher. This is in addition to the damage to infrastructure and the inability to practice or train, as athletes have found themselves isolated in their towns or villages.
Palestinian national sport has had an unusual history. The first Arab country to compete in the soccer World Cup in 1934, Palestinian sports grew out of the clubs in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa in the 1920s. This initial emergence culminated in 1934 with the formation of the POC, a body, however, that never fulfilled its function.
Until, that is, the advent of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and the international reemergence of Palestinian sport. Since Oslo, 35 major sports facilities have been built in the West Bank and Gaza, and the POC was reestablished.
Apart from a few Asian tournaments, the Atlanta Olympics was the first international tournament Palestinian athletes had taken part in since 1934. Since then, and in addition to Sydney, Palestinian athletes competed in the 1997 Arab Games in Lebanon and the 1999 Hussein Games in Jordan, where the soccer team reached the semi-finals.
“The situation of Palestinian athletics is still in a developing stage,” says Raed. “But in spite of all the obstacles faced by Palestinian athletes, first and foremost the Israeli occupation, we hope that athletics continues to move forward and that the obstacles before myself and my fellow athletes will dissipate.”
Raed acknowledges that he is luckier than others. “I live in Jerusalem and carry a Jerusalem ID card. Other athletes who live in the West Bank and Gaza are under much more pressure because of the occupation.”
Still, he has high hopes for the future. “I hope that at the Olympics, we will reach a position to put Palestine firmly on the map.”