The loneliness of a long-distance runner from Gaza


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The Independent Online

With the sun sinking slowly behind the Yarmouk Stadium, it feels a fraction cooler after a day of blistering August heat. Which is just as well, as it is Ramadan and Nader al-Masri, 31, has not eaten or drunk anything since before dawn and will not do so until dusk, still a couple of hours away. Before that, this quiet, slightly built man will have completed 25 circuits of the stadium in around 45 minutes.

It has been a heavy day of Israeli bombardment into Gaza and militant rocket attacks out of it, but his concentration is absolute. At one point a sprinter, Mohammed al-Kousa, 20, falls into step with him as he trains; al-Masri seems barely to notice. For he is on a mission: to cut his 5,000m personal best down to the 13 minutes 27 seconds he needs to qualify for London 2012. Such an achievement would be a sporting emblem for the statehood the Palestinians plan to promote by claiming recognition at the UN next month.

The problem is one of training facilities. Al-Masri will be eligible for London anyway. Olympic rules permit teams such as the Palestinians' to send two swimmers and two athletes even if they do not technically qualify. And as easily the fastest Palestinian over distance, al-Masri stands to be one of them, as he was in Beijing in 2008.

He comfortably won the first Gaza marathon in May this year, with a time of 2.42.47. But as Majed Abu Marahil, 47, another ex-Olympian Gazan and al-Masri's devoted coach, points out, hitting the qualifying time for London would not only confer on the athlete the huge satisfaction of knowing he had qualified in his own right, but also bring a bonus for his fellow Palestinian Olympic hopefuls.

"If Nader qualifies we will then be able to send a third team member. And if he can leave Gaza now to train, he has a chance of doing it."

And virtually none if he has to continue training in Gaza. Yarmouk stadium, built in 1959, was spruced up two years ago by the Hamas authorities in the Strip – but with football rather than athletics in mind. Turf has been laid down on the formerly grassless pitch but the running track is still sand, in contrast to the kind of all-weather synthetic track almost every other athlete preparing for the London Olympics will be training on.

Ideally, he would like to be at a training camp in Palestinian-friendly Qatar, which has the facilities you would expect from a leading contender to stage the 2020 Olympics. Just what is preventing al-Masri from leaving Gaza to prepare is unclear.

Coach Abu Marahil said he understood that the Palestine Olympics Committee is having trouble finding the money to fund a trip. Not so, insists Jibril Rajoub, once the feared head of Yasser Arafat's key security agency, and now the president of the Olympics Committee. He claims the problem is the refusal of Israel to grant exit permits. But the Israel Olympics Committee, which says it has helped to secure movement permits for Palestinian Olympic footballers, said yesterday it had no similar request for the Gazan runner.

If anyone deserves a break, it is Nader al-Masri, a role model for the young athletes Abu Marahil spends much of his time talent-spotting in Gaza schools. Al-Masri kept up his training through all but the very worst of the warfare which has dogged Gaza in the past few years. Now London beckons. "It is my last chance for sure," he says.