By ERIC ASOMUGHA*
CAIRO – AT A TIME when mention of Palestine in the media is linked solely to war, the words of Wusam Bakheit, spoken at the Egyptian Olympic Centre in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, ring refreshingly in the world’s ears. “I hope to do my best as a Palestinian, more especially encouraging other female athletes at home.”
Bakheit is part of a team from Palestine comprising seven females and six males training at the Olympic Centre. The camp – part of an Egyptian government assistance programme to the Palestinians, under the supervision of Ministry of Sports and the Egypt Amateur Athletics Association – was designed to prepare the athletes for the World Athletics Championship in France recently.
“This is our third time here,” Semir Al-Nabahin, the women’s team coach told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The first was in July 2002, and second was in March 2003. We came back in July for another training which ends in early September. Through this training camp, the Sports Ministry has been contributing a lot to the growth of our sports by giving us this great opportunity and exposing our athletes to the modern facilities we lack at home in Palestine,” Al-Nabahin added.
The ministry’s efforts are paying off.
“Our athletes are really happy here,” says men’s team coach Majed. “Back home, we have no training ground. We manage an open sandy area near the beach in Gaza and we still fce a lot of difficulties.”
“Movement within Gaza is highly restricted by the occupying forces (of Israel),” Al-Nabahin says. “Most times, athletes are stranded within a particular location due to road blocks and checkpoints, which makes it extremely difficult for athletes to attend training regularly,” he adds. “I call my athletes sometimes, only to discover that one or two are trapped at a checkpoints or road blocks.”
Politics aside, the other inhibiting factor is financing. Like all tumultuous nations, sponsorship from local companies is absent, and sports is not seen as a priority.
“We are only doing a voluntary job as coaches,” he shares. “We get no pay for our services and the athletes depend on their parents – who are only just managing to survive the harsh conditions they are facing. Training gear is not available to us, and so we have to manage with the little we now have.”
“Despite all the difficulties and the deploring conditions we face,” he continues, “we are determined to do our best and make Palestinians proud.”
That sense of unity and national pride is reflected in the women’s team. All seven young women are from one family, and are accompanied by Amna Abu Bakheit – their mother, and also wife of former Palestinian wrestler Abdul-Razak Abu Bakheit.
“I am happy to see my daughters and other family relatives represent their country as athletes. Palestinian women are just like others in Egypt, Jordan, Europe or elsewhere in the world. So it is my dream to see Palestinian women progress and this is why I encourage my girls,” Abu Bakheit says.
“People often ask me why these girls are running whenever we are out there training in Gaza. They don’t understand. But some families are now more accepting of the scene, and the idea of women’s participation in sports is gradually gaining support from the people,” she says, explaining her belief in the importance of women integrating themselves into the public sphere of society.
While young women in sports is a sizeable obstacle, Al-Nabahin willingly took over the coaching of the girls after they were discovered by a friend in 2002.
Since arriving in Cairo in July, the women’s team has successfully participated in various Egyptian championships. They include 12-year-old Niveen Al- Abeid’s victory in the 800m and 1000m race in Giza and Cairo respectively. She came second in the 1500m Cairo Under-20 meet. Nora, also 12, came second in 1000m race in Giza and Cairo. In Alexandria, 17-year-old Salma Al-Abeid won the 3000m walk, and Wusam Bakheit came second in the 1500 metres.
“Since I have no money to give them for their great performances, I invite them downtown for dinner and sightseeing to celebrate the success and add more smiles to their faces,” Al-Nabahin says. “It is the only way I can say thank you.”
*Al Ahram English-Language Weekly, Egypt, 4 – 10 September 2003 and reproduced in Shunpiking Online