Palestinian athletes will ‘represent a country, a history, a cause’ at the Paris Olympics

Nearly six months into a deadly war that has ravaged Gaza, the Palestine Olympic Committee is battling against formidable odds to ensure its athletes take part in the Paris Games this summer. Its technical director Nader Jayousi tells FRANCE 24 his country’s delegation will bring a “message of peace” to the world and inspire Palestinian children “whose dreams have been shattered by bombs”.  

Palestinian athletes have taken part in every Summer Olympics since they were first admitted to the Atlanta Games in 1996. Each participation has carried a special significance for residents of the Palestinian Territories and the Palestinian diaspora, giving the stateless people a venue in which to compete with the rest of the world.  

Taking part in Paris will be all the more significant in the context of the war that has devastated most of the Gaza Strip and killed at least 33,000 people, according to health officials in the Hamas-held enclave, including some of the athletes who had set their sights on the Olympic Games this summer.   

“Between athletes, coaches and club staff, the Palestinian sports scene has lost at least 170 people,” said Jayousi, speaking from the headquarters of the Palestine Olympic Committee near Jerusalem. Victims included Olympic football team coach Hani Al-Masdar and volleyball star Ibrahim Qusaya, both of them killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza. 

“To these tragedies must be added the destruction of infrastructure: the Yarmouk stadium, the Olympic Committee’s offices in Gaza, and several other stadiums,” he added. “If the war ended today, at least 70% of the Gazan population would be homeless, let alone practising a sport.” 

Jayousi said the war had forced the Palestinian committee to scale back its ambitions, putting an abrupt end to a pioneering programme aimed at boosting the number of athletes who qualify for the Olympics. Despite the huge setback, Palestinian hopes got a major boost last month when Omar Ismail secured a first ticket for the Games in men’s taekwondo – a feat Jayousi hopes other athletes will match in the coming weeks.  

The Palestinian delegation fielded a record five athletes at the last Games in Tokyo. Jayousi said the aim was to “top that number”. He remains confident that wild cards will help his country present its largest delegation yet in the history of the Olympics. 

What were your aims for the Paris Olympics and how has the outbreak of war impacted your preparation? 

You have to understand that the sports scene in Palestine has been on complete stoppage since October 7. When these events started, we were with our delegation at the Asian Games in China, securing a historical achievement with Palestine’s first ever bronze medal for Hala Alqadi, in karate. Since then, we have spent our time trying to ensure the safety of our athletes, some of whom are from Gaza. 

We had been running a pilot programme, focusing for the first time on a group of elite athletes to try to secure their qualification for the Olympics. But the stoppage came at the worst possible time, in the final stretch of preparations, the most important time in the Olympic cycle. It’s devastating for the athletes. 

We tried to adapt by shortening the list of athletes, sending them to train in friendly countries. We pushed ahead and we succeeded in accomplishing our goal: we have qualified for the Paris Games, in taekwondo. It’s historic. 

Have you been able to train at all over the past six months? 

It took us 40 days to get our weightlifting champion, Muhammad Hamada, out of Gaza, with his brother, who is also his coach. He is a former junior world champion and was very close to securing qualification for the Olympics. Unfortunately, when this tragedy began he was in northern Gaza, one of the first areas to be invaded. 

Mentally, he is extremely strong. He actually kept up the training in the first months of the war. We have footage of him training in his house and you can hear the military planes and the drones. But then the famine started and he lost about 15-17 kilos, which is extremely damaging if you’re a weightlifter.  

Read moreIn northern Gaza, ‘people have nothing left to eat’

Right now he is in Thailand, for the Olympic qualifiers, trying his very best. If he doesn’t make it, hopefully we can get him a wild card for Paris. It’s just one example. We are here for all our athletes, at their service, to give them a chance to compete.  

How do the athletes keep their focus on the sport when there’s so much suffering at home? 

It’s the mental base we have built our athletes on. They have enough awareness and maturity to understand that this is not just an individual dream. They don’t represent only themselves; they represent a country, a history, a cause.  

This is the way our athletes stay focused and keep their heads. We have been going through this for 75 years. If we let it mess with our heads we will be beaten in two days. We have to be mentally very strong. We can get over it, we have got over it. We will be at the Olympics. 

What kind of support have you received from other countries or the IOC? 

We have good support from our brotherly Arab countries, who have hosted training camps for our teams. Our national football team secured a historic achievement by reaching the round of 16 at the Asian Cup in January. They trained in Saudi Arabia, in Doha (Qatar), in Kuwait. We have massive support from countries around the world who believe in the Palestinians’ aspirations to succeed in sports.  

Regarding the IOC, we are always in touch with them, and (IOC President) Thomas Bach himself said they will be trying their best to secure Palestine’s participation in the Paris Olympics. They consider it very important to give Palestine the chance, like any other country, to be at the Games. And we have just renewed our 100% commitment to the Olympic Charter and IOC regulations.  

So I think we’re doing good in terms of support from friendly countries, including Western countries, for sure.  

Palestinian Hala Alqadi (right) won a historic bronze medal at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
Palestinian Hala Alqadi (right) won a historic bronze medal at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. © William West, AFP

The IOC has ruled out sanctions for the Israeli delegation over the war in Gaza, rejecting comparisons with the sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Do you agree with this decision?

As members of an Olympic Committee, we avoid talking about political issues. Our field is sports. I don’t have any comment regarding Russia and Ukraine. And Israel’s presence at the Olympics is not a matter we discuss. If our leadership has something to say on this subject, you will hear it in the media.  

I can answer any technical question regarding our athletes, that’s the scope of our work. We don’t intervene in politics in any way, not even our own. 

The Games could see Palestinian and Israeli athletes go face to face. Is this something you discuss with your team? 

Do you think it rattles Palestinians when they encounter Israelis? We encounter Israelis every day, in our cities, our streets, our schools. And we usually encounter them with their guns. So the idea of encountering them at the Olympics, it’s not something we are concerned about.  

We will go to the Olympics to compete and represent our country in the best way possible. We are not worried about encountering anybody.  

What will it mean to see the Palestinian flag carried by your delegation during the opening ceremony on July 26? 

In the middle of all these atrocities and all these tragedies, people will see athletes who insist on making their dream come true, on representing a country and a cause. 

I think it represents a great message of peace, showing the world what Palestinians are aspiring to. It is also a message to future generations, to our children whose dreams have been shattered by bombs and rockets. These kids will see role models and will aim to be just like our athletes who competed at the Olympic Games in Paris.  

There is a big message we need to get across, which is that we are not surrendering, we are not quitting. We will preserve the Palestinian identity, through sports, and show we are a peaceful people full of pride and respect for other nations.  

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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