Palestinian Runner Pursues Olympic Dreams Despite Rough Conditions at Home

Nader Masri's training conditions are less than ideal — he jogs halfway down the Gaza Strip in cheap shoes, dodging donkey carts and potholes.

Yet getting from blockaded Gaza to China to compete in the summer Olympics may prove far harder for the Palestinian 5K runner than shaving a few more seconds off his time.

Gaza is closed off from the world, and only those with special reasons, such as the gravely ill and key business people, are able to obtain Israeli permits to leave. The 28-year-old Masri hasn't received his exit papers yet — the permit application dawdled in Palestinian bureaucracy and landed in the bottom of a pile sent to Israeli officials. Israeli officials now say they will try to issue the permit quickly.

Gaza sports journalist Ahmed Bukhari said the local Olympic committee could also do far more to help Masri, including getting him proper shoes.

Under a beating sun on Saturday, Masri ran laps around Gaza City's sandy stadium, 16 kilometers south of his home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. He weaved around a group of girls who were jogging in loose tracksuits and headscarves.

Masri is the fastest long-distance runner in the Palestinian areas. He came in eighth in a 5,000-meter run in the Asian games in Qatar last year, beating athletes from more developed Arab countries.

His personal best is 14:24, almost a minute behind the Olympic qualifying time. However, the International Olympic Committee offers 90 slots for athletes who don't qualify, but come from countries that would otherwise not be able to take part in the Games, said IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau.

Masri said he's sure he can improve with the proper training. "That's why I'm so eager to get out of here quickly. I need to train to get a better time," he said.

The Palestinians gained IOC recognition in 1993, after the PLO signed an interim peace accord with Israel, and a Palestinian team competed in the Olympics for the first time in Atlanta in 1996. Two Palestinians participated in the 2004 Athens Olympics, including runner 19-year-old Sana Abu Bkheet, a young Gazan woman who overcame poverty and dissaproval from her community to run in Greece.

This year, two swimmers and two track and field athletes, including Masri, hope to head to Beijing. Three team members live in the West Bank, which is not sealed from the outside world.

In impoverished Gaza, sports is a low-tech affair.

Masri trains by jogging halfway down the 40-kilometer-long Gaza Strip, weaving around donkey carts on the dimly lit main road, or runs laps around Gaza City's stadium.

If there's fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers, Masri stays home. In March, he was holed up for three days as battles raged between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in a nearby town.

Masri has one pair of dark-blue professional running shoes, which Qatar's Olympic Committee gave him. He saves those for official races, just like the official Palestinian sports uniform, a bright red pair of shorts and a green shirt with "Palestine" emblazoned across it in English, donated by a global sports company.

For training, Masri wears cheap running shoes, and follows a workout from a handwritten fax sent by a sports doctor in Egypt. He's been assigned a local trainer by the Palestinian Ministry of Sports.

Masri can't afford to spend much on his sport. The father of three is paid $520 (euro330) a month as a policeman, just enough to take care of his family.

Bukhari, the local sports journalist, said the Palestinian Olympics Committee should have applied for grants for Masri. "They could get 10 pairs of shoes for Nader (Masri) if they wanted," Bukhari said. "The problem is, they don't know how to make connections with people. They talk a lot but don't do much," he said.

Nabil Mabrouk, a former committee member, said the complaints aren't fair. "Nader (Masri) has a uniform. Other athletes here don't have anything," Mabrouk said.

Masri discovered his passion for running as a boy, when he'd play soccer in a dusty field with his friends after school. "After games, I used to do laps around the field, just because I wanted to," he said.

At age 16, he won a high school race, and his sports teacher began training him. Masri's father was at first worried his son would neglect school, but came around after he won his first regional competition six months later. For the next few years, Masri participated in dozens of races.

Masri trains hard, but there's nothing he can do about tangled bureaucracies.

Palestinian Sports Ministry official Mohammed Sbeihat said he applied for an exit permit for Masri in January, and sent followup letters outlining the urgency of the case. Shadi Yassin, an Israeli army spokesman, said the application was indeed received, but that it was presented as a general request, not one for participation in the Olympic Games. Yassin said Israeli officials were now working to approve the permit.

Israel imposed a strict closure on Gaza and its 1.4 million residents after the militant Muslim group Hamas swept to power in June. Only humanitarian aid, limited amounts of fuel and a trickle of commercial goods are allowed into the territory.

Since June, Masri hasn't been able to compete in a sporting event outside of Gaza.

But missing the Olympics would be far worse than just missing a couple of races, Masri said.

"I want to represent Palestine. Otherwise, what are we fighting for? Isn't it to prove that we are a country?" he said.