While most Paralympics national teams are on a strict training schedule as the Olympics companion event approaches, focused entirely on improving their performance and winning a coveted gold medal, the Palestinian Gaza team is a bit different.
In fact, the training regimen has been anything but focused for disabled Gazan athletes Muhammad Fanouna and Khamis Zaqout, who are competing in the 2012 London Paralympic Games. In a tale reminiscent of "Cool Runnings" – a movie inspired by the unlikely Jamaican bobsledding heroes of the 1988 Winter Olympics – Mr. Fanouna and Mr. Zaqout have overcome a lack of training, equipment, and finances in order to qualify for this year’s Paralympics.
The duo, who are competing for the Palestinian team, train in Gaza, isolated from their West Bank teammates. Partially-blind Fanouna, who won a bronze medal for his long jump in the Athens Paralympics eight years ago, is competing this year in the long jump, 200-meter sprint, and javelin throw.
Although every athlete aims for the gold medal, that might be an unrealistic goal for the team from Gaza, Fanouna says.
“Every player hopes to get the gold in London. But without the facilities and training that other players have, I can’t realistically expect it. Bronze would still be a big achievement, given that we don’t have an Olympic training camp or even a track on which I can sprint.”
Nabil Hamdeya, a member of the Palestinian international disabled athletics team, started participating in disabled athletics more than a decade ago, before disabled sports were established in Gaza.
“When I started discus throwing, we didn’t have a stadium. We used to play on derelict land and our resources were very basic – we didn’t even have two discuses to rub together. All we had was our skill, spirit, and a determination to continue.”
Today, the team trains in Gaza on dedicated land and has access to basic and limited equipment. Even with improvements, the facilities for these elite athletes are rudimentary at best, particularly when compared to those of most other national teams.
“In London, I’m competing in the 200-meter,” Fanouna says, “but I barely even train for it, as we don’t have access to a track. Now, I just run on the pitch. I’m not even trying to improve my game, just to preserve the skills I already have."
"As a runner, it’s only in competitions that I improve. Even when I just get to try out the track right before the competition – I get used to the surface and angles and I improve in just a short time.”
Zaqout, who was paralyzed when he fell at a construction site in Israel in 1992, says the fact that Gazans qualified for London 2012 is nothing short of remarkable.
“We don’t have a training ground or equipment of an international standard,” he says. “We have the most basic tools, and no sports wheelchairs like other competitors, or even adequate javelins.”
Fanouna trains with Zaqout, who is competing in shot put, javelin, and discus, on a 100-meter strip of grass adjacent to Palestine Stadium in Gaza City with four team members who didn’t qualify for London. The width of the training area is too narrow for all players to train simultaneously and they have to retrieve their own apparatus after tossing them as far as possible.
There is no running track and only one Olympic-standard discus to accommodate the four discus throwers. The track leading up to the training gym is covered in sand, meaning it is not wheelchair accessible without assistance.
Sponsorship and government support
Fanouna says athletes in Gaza need more regard and support from government authorities and society as a whole, particularly those heading to the Olympics.
“Imagine you are an athlete and you made it your life to represent your country and lift up its flag, but you get no support in return – not even if you bring home the World Cup," he says.
Fanouna won gold for his long jump at the Asian Games in 2010 in addition to his bronze at the Athens Paralympic Games. “It was one of my dreams to raise my flag and play my national anthem at a prestigious competition,” he says. “There were so many countries and people there that day, so my dream really came true.”
Fanouna stresses that although he is not interested in riches, he thinks he and other athletes deserve a respectable salary for being the best at what they do. “If an athlete from any other country had got a bronze medal in the Athens Paralympics, his country would award him with a respectable winners fee. I got paid 1,000 Shekels ($250).”
Most athletes competing in the Games will have spent years training at sports centers funded by government grants, will be training with tracksuits provided by sports sponsors, and are already acquainted with Olympic-standard equipment provided by their nations’ sports franchises. But the Gazan Paralympic athletes have been struggling to even get enough funds for their tracksuits.
“Maybe we’ll end up on the street with a cup, asking for donations for our tracksuits,” Fanouna jokes.
Fanouna and his team rely on sporadic funding from private donors, as well as support from the Palestine Olympic Committee, which is based in the West Bank, under the jurisdiction and coordination of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Although Hamas does not discourage sport, it also doesn’t fall high on their list of priorities.
Muhammad Fanouna worries that the lack of local support will drive potential champions away from competitive sport.
“A player might represent Gaza and Palestine at an international level but, because there’s no support for him, when he wants to marry and start a family, then he’ll leave in search of a job.”
For Khamis Zaqout, success isn’t just about a medal, but about inspiring Palestinian youths.
“My success shows the world that here is a Palestinian in Gaza, which is besieged and disadvantaged, yet still able to compete at international levels. We are human beings from humble beginnings, who changed the concept of Palestine and of disabled sports and that is my purpose and message. There is no such thing as impossible."