/ 2 March 2012

Hopeful runner flies a proud flag for Palestinians

Bahaa al-Farra was up early on Thursday morning to join hundreds of others in the second Gaza Marathon, which spans the length of the tiny Palestinian enclave.

For many, including about 2000 children expected to run the course in 1km relays, it is a day of fun, a break in the bleak daily routine of life in Gaza. Others, mainly visitors from abroad, will be making political statements about the continued blockade by Israel. But for Farra, it was not about fun or politics but a passion for running. It has gripped him for six years and will reach its highest point so far when the 20-year-old from Gaza City represents Palestine at the London Olympics.

The 10km stretch of the United Nations-organised Gaza Marathon that Farra ran counted towards his six hours of daily training, aimed at improving his personal best time for the 400m race in which he will compete in London.

He knows that closing the gap between his record of 49.04s and the 2008 Olympic gold medallist’s 43.75s is an impossibility. Instead, he is focusing on the achievement of being Gaza’s only participant in the London Olympics and his pride at bearing the Palestinian flag in front of a global audience at the opening ceremony.

‘It’s a beautiful feeling, both as an athlete and a Palestinian,” he said between circuits at Gaza City’s Yarmouk football stadium this week. ‘I will be taking a message from the Palestinians to the greatest games on Earth — that Palestine exists despite our difficult circumstances.”

Farra will be one of a four-strong Palestinian team eligible to compete in the Olympics under rules that exempt developing nations from qualifying. He is the only one from Gaza: the others — two swimmers, including a woman from Bethlehem, and another runner — live in the West Bank.

The young Gazan divides his training among the stadium, the strip’s potholed roads and its long, undeveloped beaches. Yarmouk, once a popular venue for political rallies, is shabby and ill equipped, with an uneven sand running track around the football pitch, rather than the smooth all-weather surfaces on which most Olympic athletes train.
‘It’s very hard being an athlete in Gaza,” he said. ‘We have no proper stadiums or equipment.”

The Palestine Athletic Federation, based in Gaza, pays for transport costs and some equipment. But there is no sponsorship and Farra has no job. His mother struggles to buy and cook the right food for an athlete in training, he said.

Farra began running at the age of 14 and gave up school shortly afterwards. Of his seven siblings, one brother has recently joined him on the track and a sister used to run
but stopped as a young teenager to avoid offending Gaza’s conservative mores.

He competed abroad twice last year, in the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in South Korea and the Pan-Arabic Championships in the United Arab Emirates.
This weekend he will travel to Istanbul to take part in the World Indoor Championships.

Ibrahim Abu Hasaria, who coaches Farra on technique, speed and motivation, has invested heavily in his first Olympic competitor in 12 years as a trainer.
‘I was also a runner and now I hope that I can achieve the things I didn’t achieve through him.”

Also advising the young man is Majad abu Maraheel (48), the first Palestinian athlete to compete in the Olympic Games — in Atlanta in 1996.
‘My achievement was to raise the Palestinian flag in front of the world,” he said.

The 16 days of competition in London fall in the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. Farra has secured permission from a sheikh to break his fast while training and competing and will compensate with extra fast days later. —