July 23, 1996
Palestinians run from past
By STEVE SIMMONS
ATLANTA -- He was just a boy who loved to run in the sands of Gaza when the guerrillas of his country hijacked the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, killing 11 Israeli athletes and officials.
He just was an eight-year-old boy who didn't understand.
Majed Abu Marahel was sitting in a tent at the athletes' village yesterday with a stranger from Canada, trying to explain his life, his country and the Olympic dream that forever has consumed him.
When with shaking hands he carried the flag of Palestine in the opening ceremonies on Friday night, the first man ever to make those steps, the 32-year-old was carrying with him a lifetime of personal beliefs in sport, hope, peace and a better life, a non-political athlete from the most political region of the globe.
"Munich is part of our history," he said. "In every nation and with every people, there are people who do things. We know as a people it isn't right. Now, we want to present a new face in Atlanta, not a face of blood.
"For Palestinian sports people, Atlanta is our first chance to send a message to the world that the Palestinian people do not want to be known for hate, violence and killing. We want to have a normal life. And the best way to do that is through youth and sport.''
The Palestinian team has a contingent of four at its first Olympic Games. There is a chef de mission who doubles as the track coach. There are two long-distance runners. And they have a team leader who doubles as a trainer.
They are not here to win any medals. Just being here, being accepted, being part of an event they knew only from a television screen, is victory enough.
Abu Marahel has trained his whole life, never once believing he would make it to the Olympics. He would run along the beaches of the impoverished Gaza Strip, living under Israeli occupancy, with the understanding he was good enough, just never given the opportunity.
"They would say: `You haven't got a land. You must have a land,' " Marahel said.
"We were always looked at as terrorists abroad and we wanted to change this image. I just want to prove to the whole world that we, the Palestinians, despite all the pressures, all the hardships we faced, that we can manage to reach the top and to say to the world that we are a civilized nation that exists on the world map."
It wasn't until the peace agreement of 1993 that Olympic status changed for Palestine. It became a country, however accepted worldwide, and suddenly eligible. Now Abu Marahel and his teammate Ahab Salama run not only for themselves, but for their country's future.
As fast as they run, though, they cannot run away from the tragedy of Munich. And they are here, in spite of Israeli protests at a time when International Olympic Association sensitivity is at a peak, with tremendous pressure on the IOC to publicly apologize to Israel for 1972.
But this is not a debate for the athletes of Palestine. This was not their disgrace. They are not here to explain the politics of their nation or to apologize for it. Abu Marahel is here to run in the 10,000-metre event. Ahab Salama is here for the 5,000 metres. They are international athletes for the first time in their lives.
They have no real coach, not one with any credentials, and equipment that hardly is modern. They use a wristwatch instead of a stop watch, and arrive with none of the conveniences of track and field in the '90s.
Before last summer, neither runner had raced on what we would call a professional track. The first time Abu Marahel travelled internationally to run, he spent 10 hours at an Egyptian border, detained by security. "They said: `We never heard of such a thing as a runner from Palestine.' They thought I had motives other than sport. This is what we try to overcome.''
They still get looks in the Athletes' Village, looks of disapproval that they are trying hard to eliminate. There are Israeli athletes and officials here who detest their presence.
"We have to accept Israel. Israel exists,'' Abu Marahel said. "That is a fact. And we live so close to each other. We have to find a way to try to live together. For us, maybe this is a beginning.''