Palestinian swimmers are glad just to dive in
BEIJING - They may not be Michael Phelps, or even Gal Nevo or Tom Be'eri, but today and tomorrow will see the debut of the two swimmers representing Palestine.
Hamse Abdouh and Zakiya Nassar, who represent half of Palestine's four-person Olympic delegation, will compete in the men's and women's 50m freestyle competition respectively.
"When the Chinese fans applauded us at the opening ceremony, we felt like that was why we had come. And also of course to compete," said swim coach Ibrahim al-Tawil, who is also head of the Palestinian Authority's Olympic delegation.
"Our sign didn't say 'Occupied Territories' or 'West Bank' or 'Palestinian Authority.' It just said 'Palestine.' Billions of people saw that on TV, and that's a big thing," he said.
Abdouh, only 18, grew up in East Jerusalem, where he trained in the pool of the city's YMCA. Since he does not hold a blue ID card, he cannot train in the western part of the city.
Nassar's situation presents further difficulties. She lives in Bethlehem and is studying dentistry at the Arab-American University in Jenin.
Canada's Globe and Mail reported last month that there is no Olympic-sized pool in the Palestinian Authority and no budget whatsoever for its Olympic swimmers.
Nassar told the newspaper she was receiving no support from the authorities, that she was able to swim once a month at best, and that she feared a "disastrous" performance in Beijing.
A request to train in Israel was turned down. "The Israel Olympic Committee actually tried to help a lot," said coach al-Tawil, "but the army authorities or whoever it was did not approve."
Palestine may not be a sovereign country, but it has been recognized as an official Olympic delegation since the start of the Oslo peace process. This is hardly the first time a delegation has been assembled to represent a non-sovereign entity. After all, the Land of Israel Olympic Committee was allowed to send a delegation to the Berlin Olympics of 1936, but it boycotted those Games in protest against Germany's Nazi regime.
Nevo does kibbutz proud
There are a few problems at Kibbutz Hamadia, but the swimming pool is not one of them.
I can attest to this fact - my wife and her family are products of the kibbutz, located just north of Beit Shean. I know it well.
Even today, this wonderful pool draws in swimmers from across the Beit Shean Valley, as it has since it was built sometime in the '60s or '70s.
Gal Nevo grew up in this pool, which has raised not a few top swimmers.
Yesterday, after setting a new Israeli record in the 200m individual medley and advancing to the semifinal, we asked him what was driving him to such impressive accomplishments.
"Come to Hamadia, you'll understand," he said.
Even as a teenager, he was already breaking records. My niece told me when the swimmer was only 15 that the kibbutz was growing a crop that would one day certainly be sent to the Olympics.
I was skeptical - he's too short, I told her. Yesterday the now 21-year-old proved me wrong. "I've waited for a moment like this. It felt good," he said.
His father Ehud and English-born mother Karen watched proudly in the stands as their boy did the little kibbutz proud.
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