Palestinians Win Pride, Solidarity at Olympics
August 3, 2021

Five athletes represented Palestine at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games this year. The Games were postponed last year due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The sports stars came from Gaza, Jerusalem and North America to participate as part of the seventh delegation from Palestine in the history of the Olympics.

Palestine was officially and unanimously admitted to the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) in 1986. The recognition of Palestine was met with Israeli outrage. The head of the Israeli Olympic Committee denounced OCA’s decision as “stupid” and “political propaganda” and threatened to implore the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to sanction the OCA. Four years earlier, in 1982, Israel had been excluded from the OCA.

Since the ‘96 Atlanta Summer Games, Palestine has sent a delegation to every Summer Olympics. No Palestinian athlete has competed in the Winter Games. The Palestinian delegations have remained small: six atheletes at the 2016 Rio Games and five this year in Tokyo who will be competing in swimming, athletics (running), judo, and weightlifting. 

Joint flag-bearers Yazan Al Bawwab, 21, and Dania Nour, 17, competed in the men’s 100 meters and and women’s 50 meters freestyle respectively in the pool last week. Bawwab came in third and Nour came in last. Wesam Abu Rmilah, 25, was knocked out in the Round of 32 in Judo on July 27. Gazan weightlifter Mohammad Hamada, 19, made history as the first Palestinian to compete in weighlifting on July 31, but failed to qualify in the men’s 96 kg competition. And, lastly, Hanna Barakat, 21, competed in track and field in the women’s 100m sprint setting a national record for Palestine.

No athlete competing under the Palestinian flag has ever won a medal — and none are expected to win this year — but for Palestinians under occupation to be represented in the Olympics is no small feat. There is no Olympic-sized swimming pool (50m) in the entire West Bank, for instance. Swimmers must settle for a 25m pool, which might leave them at a disadvantage in training against more privileged athletes. 

Israeli travel restrictions, checkpoints, violence, and the general indignities and humiliation of an apartheid system have a long documented history of obstructing sporting competition. 100 Gazan runners, for example, were denied permission to travel to the 2018 Bethlehem marathon. In June, Israeli police attacked runners at a marathon in solidarity with Palestinians facing the threat of forced expulsion from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods. Similar restrictions have prevented Palestinan soccer teams from traveling to matches. In 2014, soccer players Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, were shot by Israeli soldiers on the way home from practice. Their doctors told them they would never be able to play again. 

Israel’s repeated violations of the rights of Palestinian soccer players led the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) to table a motion at a 2015 FIFA’s conference to suspend Israel’s membership. To the dismay of many Palestinians, PFA head Jibril Rajoub abandoned his effort in the face of FIFA’s evident reluctance to punish Israel. 

While FIFA has refused to register any protest about Israeli violence against soccer players, it did take action in 2018 to suspend and fine Rajoub for allegedly glorifying violence and acting in opposition to the brotherly spirit of the game after the PFA head called for burning the jersey of Argentine forward Lionel Messi to protest a planned friendly match between Argentina and Israel, which was subsequently cancelled.

The forced dependency on the graces of a hostile occupier can follow athletes abroad. At the 2016 Rio Games, Olympic uniforms for Palestinian athletes arrived late after being delayed by Israeli customs. 

Life under occupation is arguably not the most conducive to the arduous training necessary to reach the Olympics. Beyond the lack of Olympic-standard facilities (and the inability to train at Israeli sporting centers which do meet those standards), there are the burdens of necessitating Israeli approval to train or compete abroad and the reality that any trip to your training facility might be delayed, if not entirely denied, at Isreali checkpoints. For many Palestinians, surviving under occupation is tough enough without trying to figure out how to fit in hours of daily training in a homeland where freedom of movement is arbitrarily denied. 

Perhaps it is no surprise then that many of those representing Palestine at the Olympics are from the Palestinian disapora where it is much easier to train. The sprinter Hanna Barakat is Palestinian-American and studies at Brown University. She is a legacy Olympian; her father, Mohammed Barakat, competed in field hockey at the ‘84 Los Angeles Games for the United States. Swimmer Yazan Al Bawwab grew up in Dubai, holds Palestinian and Italian citizenship, and currently lives in Canada where he studies engineering at Carleton University. On the other hand, Dania Nour is from Bethlehem and Wesam Abu Rmilah is from Jerusalem.

The 2016 Rio delegation was even more diaspora-heavy. Long-distance runner Mayada Al-Sayad was born in Berlin and is a dual German-Palestinian citizen. Judoka Simon Yacoub was born in Leipzig to a Palestinian father and German mother. Swimmer Ahmed Gebrel was raised in Cairo. And Christian Zimmerman, who competed in equestrian dressage, had no Palestinian linage but acquired citizenship in 2011.

Given the nature of modern Palestinian life — where Palestinians have one foot planted in a forced exile and another under occupation — it isn’t surprising that Palestine Olympics teams would reflect this dual reality. 

This reality means that politics is never far removed from the playing field. Israel’s violations of the rights of Palestinian athletes clearly runs contrary to the IOC’s stated of mission of “protecting the interests of the athletes” but the IOC has shied away from enacting the type of sanctions it once visited upon Apartheid South Africa, banned from the Olympics in 1964 until the end of segregation in the 1990s. The IOC has demonstrated no such inclination towards Israel despite the judgment of international and Israeli human rights organizations that Israel’s occupation over Palestinians constitutes the crime of apartheid. 

Instead, the responsibility has fallen to individual athletes to register opposition to Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian athletets by refusing to compete against Israeli athletes. Recently, both an Algerian and Sudanese judukas Fethi Nourine and Mohamed Abdalrasool have forfeited their rounds rather than compete against the Israeli counterpart. Saudi Arabian judoka, Tahani Alqahtani, however, did not withdraw and faced not only online criticism but a humiliating defeat of zero to 11 points against her Israeli opponent.

Whether it is fair to remonstrate athletes due to their government’s policies has long been contested. Symbolic protests, however, have a history in sports. Athletes have used boycotts as an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the downtrodden and protest a targeted nation along with an Olypmpic governing body that appears to be more offended by the spruning of Israeli athletes than the injuries and burdens afflciting Palestinian athelets.

About The Author: 

Khelil Bouarrouj is a former content editor at the Institute for Palestine Studies. Prior to his experience at IPS, he lived and taught English in Nablus in the Occupied West Bank. He frequently writes about Palestinian affairs, queer issues, and gastronomy. 

Read more