- Title: GAZA: Olympic runner braves hardship ahead of the Beijing 2008 Olympics
- Date: 17th April 2008
- Summary: AL-MASRI RUNNING THROUGH BEIT HANOUN CAMP ALLEYWAYS
- Embargoed: 2nd May 2008 13:00
- Topics: Sports
- Reuters ID: LVADE0JRTW7MEAIA123VOXEYXXZM
- Story Text: Air raids and rocket fire disrupt his training, his running shoes are cheap and scruffy and even getting Israeli permission to leave the Gaza Strip was a struggle.
But armed with "faith and self-confidence", Palestinian athlete Nader al-Masri is determined to make Gaza proud at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Al-Masri has earned himself a place at the Olympics despite not being having access to nutritional supplements and training opportunities readily available to many other athletes around the world.
"I average 20 to 25 kilometres daily. This kind of effort requires vitamins and a nutritious diet. We still don't have a proper racing track. I do all of my training in the streets," said Masri, one of a four-member Palestinian team who hope to compete in China and the only representative from the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Every day Masri, a 28-year-old father of three from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, jogs past bombed-out buildings and houses riddled with bullet holes, and alongside fields regularly pounded by Israeli missiles aimed at militants.
Children shout "Run, Nader run" and adults wave to him as he trudges along his training route.
"If the opportunities are provided, I do not want to be like any other athlete who just goes to raise the national flag at a championship and go home. That is the usual routine and I would like to change it," Masri told Reuters, wearing blue running shorts and a matching T-shirt.
"If I am provided with the right opportunities, I would hope to set a good record and get a good rank. We, Palestinians have good potential, we just need the right opportunities. I don't intend to just go raise the flag, if I get the right training, I would like to achieve something worthwhile at the Olympics," he added.
Masri is planning to run in the 5,000 metres. His personal best time is 14 minutes 25 seconds, almost two minutes slower than Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele's world record of 12:37.35, but Masri believes he can improve by 40 seconds.
The Palestinians took part in the Olympics for the first time at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. They also sent a team to Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.
But funding sport with the sums required to raise the level of Palestinian athletes so that they are good enough to vie for a medal is out of the question at the moment.
Gaza's economy has been in meltdown since Hamas Islamists seized control of the territory and Israel tightened a blockade, regularly launching raids which it says target militants who fire rockets at the Jewish state.
Masri's own house was struck by a militants' rocket aimed at nearby Israeli towns. It damaged walls and smashed windows, but the runner and his family escaped unharmed.
Masri is set to be joined by three others -- sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof from Jericho and swimmers Hamza Abdu from Jerusalem and Zakeya Nassar from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
Travel abroad is a problem for Gazans due to the Israeli-led blockade.
Since speaking to Reuters television in Gaza, Masri has been granted a special permit to go to Beijing after missing eight international athletics meetings.
He gets only 100 U.S. dollars a month from the Palestinian Athletics Federation -- a sum he says is insufficient for the multi-vitamins, nutritious food and quality running shoes needed to compete at the highest level.
He trains on the streets or at Gaza's soccer stadium, whose main use has been for rallies by Palestinian factions rather than sporting events.
Athletics federation chairman Nabil Mabrouk said sports funding was scant from a government focused on peace talks with Israel.
Despite the bitter dispute between President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, which holds sway in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, the Palestinians will send a team representing both territories.
Masri, who finished runner-up in a half-marathon in Jordan in 2006, dreams of being the first Palestinian to bag an Olympic medal.
"The Palestinian people are besieged. I would like to tell the world that we are a peaceful people. It's not true what they say about us," Masri said. "We are not terrorists. We are good people who love sports, we love the world and we love peace. And hopefully I will be able to do something good for Palestine."
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