April 17, 2008 / 12:17 AM / in 10 years

Gaza athlete dodges bullets in race to Beijing

<p>Nader al-Masri stretches in the Gaza Strip April 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem</p>

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Air raids and rocket fire disrupt his training, his running shoes are cheap and scruffy and even getting Israeli permission to leave the Gaza Strip was a struggle.

But armed with “faith and self-confidence,” Palestinian athlete Nader al-Masri is determined to make Gaza proud at the Beijing Olympics in August.

“I want to raise a Palestinian flag and to win some pride for my town and for my country,” said Masri, one of a four-member Palestinian team who hope to compete in China and the only representative from the impoverished Gaza Strip.

Every day Masri, a 28-year-old father of three from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, jogs past bombed-out buildings and houses riddled with bullet holes, and alongside fields regularly pounded by Israeli missiles aimed at militants.

Children shout “Run, Nader run” and adults wave to him as he trudges along his training route.

“Rockets and raids affect my training,” Masri told Reuters, wearing blue running shorts and a matching T-shirt. “I cannot train at home -- I am a long-distance runner.”

Masri is planning to run in the 5,000 meters. His personal best time is 14 minutes 25 seconds, almost two minutes slower than Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele’s world record of 12:37.35, but Masri believes he can improve by 40 seconds.

The Palestinians took part in the Olympics for the first time at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. They also sent a team to Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.

But funding sport with the sums required to raise the level of Palestinian athletes so that they are good enough to vie for a medal is out of the question at the moment.

Gaza’s economy has been in meltdown since Hamas Islamists seized control of the territory and Israel tightened a blockade, regularly launching raids which it says target militants who fire rockets at the Jewish state.

<p>Nader al-Masri runs through the streets of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip April 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem</p>

Masri’s own house was struck by a militants’ rocket aimed at nearby Israeli towns. It damaged walls and smashed windows, but the runner and his family escaped unharmed.

SPECIAL PERMIT

Masri is set to be joined by three others -- sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof from Jericho and swimmers Hamza Abdu from Jerusalem and Zakeya Nassar from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Travel abroad is a problem for Gazans due to the Israeli-led blockade and Masri has just been granted a special permit to go to Beijing after missing eight international athletics meetings.

He gets only $100 a month from the Palestinian Athletics Federation -- a sum he says is insufficient for the multi-vitamins, nutritious food and quality running shoes needed to compete at the highest level.

He trains on the streets or at Gaza’s soccer stadium, whose main use has been for rallies by Palestinian factions rather than sporting events.

Athletics federation chairman Nabil Mabrouk said sports funding was scant from a government focused on peace talks with Israel.

Despite the bitter dispute between President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction, which holds sway in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, the Palestinians will send a team representing both territories.

Masri, who finished runner-up in a half-marathon in Jordan in 2006, dreams of being the first Palestinian to bag an Olympic medal.

“When I began running in the streets of Beit Hanoun, people laughed at me saying I was thin and running would make me only thinner,” Masri said. “Now they cheer as I pass them and I do not want to let them down.”

Editing by Rebecca Harrison and Ori Lewis

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