A Palestinian Olympic dream

One Palestinian runner strives against heavy odds to represent her state-in-the-making.

Runner Sanaa Abu Bkheet is a fitting representative of the Palestinians for this summer's Athens Olympics.

Like the nation that lacks territory for its state, Ms. Abu Bkheet, 19, has no track on which to run. There are none in war-torn Gaza, one of the most crowded and impoverished places on earth. She runs on the beach, along Mediterranean waters sealed off by the Israeli navy.

Three years after starting to run, Abu Bkheet, a high school senior, is doing her best to get ready for Athens, where she will compete in the 800-meter run.

"I know that I can't get a medal in this Olympics," she says during an interview in the federation's offices in a Palestinian security complex badly damaged during an Israeli airstrike. "What I am hoping is that if I do well enough I will gain a chance to develop myself abroad.

"It is a big responsibility to be the first Palestinian woman runner in the Olympics and to represent Palestine," she adds. Dismissing the suggestion that there is no such country, Abu Bkheet says, "I have a country, but it is under occupation."

Each time the tiny team - three athletes this year - has been dispatched more for politics than sports - to symbolize that Palestine is a state-in-the-making and a member of the international community.

Abu Bkheet's challenges are perhaps even more formidable than the obstacles faced by other Olympic hopefuls who rose from Third World poverty, including her idol, Mozambique's 800-meter gold medalist Maria Mutola.

Locked in a struggle for survival, Palestinian society has little space - mental or physical - for sports, and the government, a self-rule authority on the brink of collapse, has no money to sponsor her. Her predicament reflects the larger woes of a nation stunted. She can rely only on herself and the backing of her family.

The Palestinian Athletic Federation is asking Germany and the International Olympic Committee to sponsor Abu Bkheet for some training before Athens, according to the committee's Secretary-General Khalil Abed.

In Gaza, Abu Bkheet brings running back to its basics, to a simpler era before it became big business. No energy bars, organic oranges, or energy calculators. On rainy days, the metal roof of her house leaks and she sleeps in the only dry room with her parents and five siblings. Her father, a policeman in the Palestinian Authority, earns $220 a month, making her family better off than many in Gaza, but too poor to buy her more than a sweatsuit. Abu Bkheet starts the day with a spoonful of olive oil and runs for 90 minutes before school starts. After classes, she trains at the beach.

Some practices and meets have been lost to road closures. At first, Abu Bkheet had to be wary of religious Muslim critics who said it was inappropriate for girls to be running through the streets or on the beach, says coach Samir al-Nabihin.

Abu Bkheet says her mood is also soured by the fighting that has taken the lives of more than 2,600 people on the Palestinian side and more than 900 people on the Israeli side, according to Associated Press statistics. She says passing through checkpoints under the guns of soldiers is disquieting. "I feel a nervousness and a sadness," she says. "It would be a different training entirely if I was calm."

The last time Abu Bkheet ran on a track was last April in Cairo, where she ran the 800 meters in 2:28.11. The current women's Olympic record time for the event is 1:53.43. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the current Olympic record time.]

Mr. Nabahin concedes that even in the best case - if she is invited to live abroad - she is years of training away from Olympic standards.

"As far as Athens is concerned, I tell her to relax, not to worry, and to just do her best," says Nabahin.

Ahmad Bukhari, sports writer for the Jerusalem Times weekly, says: "Until the political situation improves, Palestinian athletes simply will not be able to rise to international standards. We have a lot of wasted talent. It's really a lost generation."

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