Half-way through the Paralympic 2012 Games in London, Palestine’s two participants, 47-year-old Khamis Zaqout and 32-year-old Muhammed Fannouna, are being feted and celebrated by the great and the good, as well as the huge, enthusiastic audiences who are turning out to watch them compete in the shotput, discus, javelin, long-jump, 100- and 200-metre athletics events. While Zaqout fell just 4 centimeters (!!!) short of taking a bronze medal in the shotput last Friday, team officials remain confident that there will be a Palestinian on the podium by the end of the Games on 9 September.
Tonight, a special, high-level reception is being held for the team at London’s Portcullis House in Westminster, across from the Houses of Parliament and “Big Ben.” Politicians, diplomats, officials, journalists, activists, supporters and members of the public have been invited by MP Jeremy Corbyn and the Palestinian Ambassador, Professor Manuel Hassassian, to cheer them on, and to help put Palestine “on the map” at a time when the world’s eyes are once again on London. (Corbyn hosted another reception in July at the London Assembly for the Palestinian Olympic team. See “Palestine’s Olympic Triumph II”, 30 July, below.)
Last Thursday, the team, led by the Chairman of the Palestinian Paralympics Committee, Akram Okkeh, was given an exclusive tour of Parliament and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office after being received on their arrival in the capital by the Foreign Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt. Speaking after the event, he paid tribute to their “dedication and determination” in overcoming the obstacles they faced to be able to compete in London. “Their stories are genuinely inspiring, and their achievements all the more impressive for being made with such limited resources and facilities,” he added.
The UK’s Consulate-General in East Jerusalem played a vital role in helping the two paralympians to come to the UK, and to prepare for what is already being heralded as the most successful Paralympics Games ever. Sir Vincent Fean, the Consul-General, and his staff were at the forefront of efforts to make sure that the two qualifiers could get from their homes in Gaza to East Jerusalem and, from there, to fly to London despite the Israeli restrictions which have prevented so many Gazans from travelling outside the enclave (and which prevented Zaqout from attending a pre-Games event in Ramallah earlier this year). It’s all part of the Consulate-General’s activities since last May, which have also enabled the paralympians and their coaches to travel to proper training facilities in Qatar.
Burt, who is number two at the Foreign Office, has been co-ordinating the pre-Games support in the UK. Last month, he spent a day in the city of Bedford, north of London, to thank the scores of British volunteers and officials at the University of Bedford who opened their doors to the Paralympians, not just from Palestine but also from other parts of the Arab world, to help them prepare for an event that is attracting far more global interest than many might have expected. Ticket sales to date, at 2.3 million, have already set a record for any previous Paralympics, whether in Beijing, Athens or Atlanta.
Media coverage of the Palestinian team has already surpassed even that of the Palestinian Olympic team last month, with special features in the Guardian, Independent, the Washington Post, Reuters and Agence France Presse (AFP), as well as many others both inside and outside the Arab world. The UK’s Channel IV has also helped to bring the Palestinian paralympians to Britain’s—and the world’s—attention, showing a documentary late last year about the 80 men and women who hoped to qualify for London at their training ground in Gaza. (It was broadcast on the Channel’s Unreported World series last November, and can be viewed on their website.)
Looking ahead, the key dates for the athletes are September 5, 6 and 8. The Secretary-General of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, Ala Shataly, told the Guardian, “Zaqout is definitely going to win a medal.” The father of nine, who has been confined to a wheelchair since 1992, qualified for the Games after winning his category in the shotput in the Arab Games in Doha last December, where he set an Asian record of 11.34 metres.
“I am physically and mentally ready for this battle, and to represent Palestine on the international stage,” Zaqout said. “Our success, despite the restrictions and obstacles we face, proves that against all odds, you can achieve anything with determination. It also shows that a disability is not only not the end of your life and mobility, but it can be a path to greatness.”
Fannouna, along with Hussam Fares Azzam, already holds pride of place for being the second Palestinian to win an Olympic medal (see “Palestine’s Olympic Triumph II,” 30 July, below), having won a bronze metal in the long jump at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004. Since then the partially-sighted athlete has won two golds and three bronze medals in the Arab Games in Doha.
But he is pragmatic about his chances next week. “Every player hopes to get the gold in London,” he told international media. “But without the facilities and training facilities that other players have, I can’t realistically expect it. Bronze would still be a big achievement,” he added, “given that we don’t have an Olympic training camp, or even a track on which I can sprint.”
© Pamela Ann Smith
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