Athlete who carries Palestinians' first Olympic hopes to Atlanta

This man, running along a Mediterranean beach yesterday morning, will make history. Ihab Salama, 21, is one of a group of athletes who will run for Palestine at the Atlanta Olympic Games, the first time that the territory has been represented, writes Clare Garner.

A record 197 countries will be competing in the Olympic Games this year, 26 of them for the first time. It is the largest number of countries and territories ever to compete, a product of the splintering of states and claims for independence that have remade the world over the past four years. The first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896, hosted just 13 countries.

The Palestinian Authority is not yet a state. But its status as an independent territory makes it eligible for the Olympics. The Palestinians have been trying for 20 years - since Montreal in 1976 - to establish a team. Indeed, a Palestine Olympic Committee was one of the first things established after the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, signed a peace agreement in 1993. It is a long way from 1972, when Palestinian guerrillas massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich games.

Other newcomers at Atlanta will include Cambodia, small Caribbean, African and Pacific territories and 17 newly independent countries: former Soviet and Yugoslav republics, the two halves of former Czechoslovakia, and Palestine. Some failed to make it before for reasons of politics, money, or lack of sporting prowess. For the first time in the Olympics' 100-year history, every country accepted its invitation.

Photograph: Adel Hana/AP