Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Palestine and Olympics

Issam Khalidi

"I am proud to fly high the Palestinian flag during the ceremony, this is an affirmation that we Palestinians exist and hope our state will be one day as other sovereign states around the world."                    Maher Abu Rmeileh [1]

      When thirty-two-year-old Majdi Abu Marahil crossed the finish line in the men’s 10,000-meter race at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and thus became the first Palestinian athlete to compete in the leading international sport event, a decades-long struggle to have Palestine participate in the Olympics came to an end. The runner, born in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and whose training often consisted of a daily twenty kilometer run from his home to the Erez border checkpoint which he crossed to work as a day laborer in Israel, fulfilled his dream and the dream of many Palestinians: participating as equals on the world stage. His participation truly embodied a personal and collective victory over adversary, in the sports arena and beyond.
In the twenty years since the Atlanta games, fourteen Palestinian sportsmen and sportswomen have taking part in five Olympics and though there are still many obstacles, the nation’s participation in the worldwide tournament is no longer questioned. Achieving this was the culmination of a long road and relentless efforts by Palestinian activists and their international allies. They had to overcome lack of funds and training facilities, Israeli blockades and bombings, and religious and cultural prejudices. Becoming a member of The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and getting to participate in the Olympic games (as well as in other international tournaments such as The World Cup) was a long process that mirrored Palestinian efforts to be regarded as a sovereign nation and take its rightful place in international sporting events as well as in other international realms. In this essay we will focus on the history of Palestine in the Olympics.

Early days

  In 1924 the Maccabi federation applied to join the International Football Association. Maccabi leaders, aware that before being admitted to any international sport organization they have to establish a more inclusive association, formed The Palestine Football Association (PFA) and invitation to join was sent to Palestinian Arab teams. The first meeting of the new football association directorate included fourteen Jewish representatives and one Arab delegate-Ibrahim Nusseibeh of the Arab Sports Club of Jerusalem. However despite his participation in the first directorate session, Nusseibeh's name never again appears in the record of the association, demonstrating the lack of sincere desire by the Jewish committee members fro true integration. 

   Later PFA adopted Zionism’s blue and white colours and dropped Arabic as one of its languages within three years of its founding. The Zionist anthem “Ha-Tikva” was played alongside Britain’s “God Save the King” at the start of official matches. The Palestine Olympic Committee followed a similar pattern with its nine members, seven of which were Jewish. The exploitation of PFA by the Jewish athletic officials and the continued marginalization of the Arabs was among the Zionist goals, especially after joining FIFA in June 1929; therefore, the Palestinians announced their dissatisfaction with the Jewish practices in seizing this Association.

On 26 April 1927, under the title (Palestine and Olympic Games) the Zionist-oriented Palestine Bulletin published this news:

 Our London Correspondent writes us as follows: I was wondering whether Palestine will be represented at the Olympic games which are taking place next year in Amsterdam. I have made special inquiries and I have been informed by the Olympic Committee that only nations who have an Olympic Committee of their own are invited to participate. Consequently, the Palestine Athletic organizations have not received a special invitation, especially as being British Mandated Territory it is assumed that a Palestine delegation will be included in the British delegation. However, I am advised that the Olympic games it must apply to the International Olympic Committee at Lausanne, Switzerland. In order not to be late the application must reach the Committee sometime this summer. [2]

   There is a clear similarity between the process of the affiliation of the PFA with FIFA and the Palestine Olympic Committee POC. [3] The same was repeated in 1934 when the Jewish Maccabi Sports Association applied to join International Olympic Committee IOC, but IOC refused its application unless this committee will include Arab members. In August 1933 a letter signed by Lord Aberdare, member of the IOC, mailed to the Maccabi organization:

 To the question of an Olympic Association for Palestine I will ask you to send me the texts of the letter by which I inform that Association of the impossibility for the I.O.C. to recognize officially the Olympic Association of Palestine, because in the present form it represented only the Maccabi organization and is not fully representative of all communities and sports, which is not accordance with our Rules. You will judge yourself if something more precise has to be said. It seems to me that if they obey by our suggestions and if they enlarge their Association by taking with them the other Jews, the Moslems, and Christians; nothing will prevent them to take part as a separate country. There is no question of Independent nation in the rules. In the meantime, I will see that they are not invited by Hitler to the Berlin Games.[4]

  Subsequently, the Maccabi decided to push Ali al-Mustaqim, a Moslem from Haifa and another Christian (not mentioned his name), to be represented as Arabs, just to reveal to IOC that there are two Arab members one of them is the POC Vice President. In a letter to Y. Yakutiely - Secretary of POC (and President of the Maccabi Organization), Ali al-Mustaqim accepted and confirmed this position:

  With reference to your letter of the 21st inst. [in or of the present month], asking me to accept the Vice-Presidency of the Palestine Olympic Comm. Dear Sir it would be my greatest pleasure to accept the said Vice Presidency. I should very much pleased indeed to be able to meet the rest of the members of the Committee. On this occasion, I hereby pledge to do my best to promote the sport and the Sportsmanship Spirit in this country namely Palestine.[5]

  Officially, POC was affiliated with IOC in 1934. Later, Arabs were marginalized from this committee. The Zionists had no disire to cooperate with them. The former  viewed establishing athletic federations and committees as a means of achieving overall Zionist goals of establishing and legitimating Zionist claims to Palestine. These official organizations helped represent Palestine as "Jewish," both regionally and internationally and were seen as instrumental in achieving the leadership's national and political goals. Later this committee received an invitation to participate in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936; however, it was rejected because of the persecution of Jews by the German Nazis.

   The Zionists workers association ha-Poel (established in 1926) represented Palestine in the Workers Olympics in Europe in 1931 and 1937. The Jewish athletic organizations set up their semi Olympics (Maccabiad, Maccabiah) in Tel Aviv in 1932, 1935. Ten thousand attended the second Maccabiah, the Zionist flags were raised; participants and attendees chanted for the future national home.[6]

    In May 1932  a team from Palestine took part in the Syrian Olympics, this team included 12 members from the Maccabi, 6 from the British, 6 – YMCA, 3- Hapoel, 1 Armenian.[7] In 1935, Palestine was invited to take part in the Mediterranean Olympics. Under the title (Palestine and the Greece Olympics) Al-Difa’ (established in 1934) commented about the participation in these games: “In Athens the capital of Greece the Mediterranean Olympic Games will be held between 28the and 30th of this month [ June 1935], it was mentioned in the news that “Palestine” will participate in these games…. We were informed that 12 Jewish athletes will travel to participate in these games; claiming that they represent Palestine; it is likely that we will get news that these young men raised the Zionist flag, claiming that it represents the Palestinian flag. Who is responsible for delivering the exact information about the identity of these young men to the Greece government?"[8]

   It’s a matter of fact that Arab sports lagged behind Jewish sports. The Jews came to Palestine from developed industrial societies. Definitely, they brought with them physical culture and the culture of sports. The yishuv, and the Zionist movement that represented it, in consequence, received powerful external support, both from many of its coreligionist elsewhere and from the greatest imperial power of the day, as well as from the League of Nations. [9] All the gauges of the economic, social, and political advancement of the yishuv – the massive import of capital, the inflow of highly skilled human capital, the community’s predominantly urban nature, its high degree of ideological homogeneity, its unique social makeup and governing structures – when taken together, indicate its capacity for generating considerable state power.[10]

   After the re-establishment of the Arab Palestine Sports Federation in 1944, Arab sports movement witnessed a remarkable progress. At that time, Khaireddin Abu al-Jibin Difa’s sports columnist commented on the receiving of the General Secretary of Palestine OC the invitation for participating in the Olympic Games which was planned to be held in 1948 in London. “His honor transferred this invitation to the Palestine Olympic Committee” (which was dominated by the Jews), asking: “Who are the members of this committee? Do the Arabs take part in it, or the Jews only? Who will represent Palestine in these international games; in which the Arabs have the rights to participate because they make up the majority of the population?”[11]

  The well-known Palestinian boxer Adib al-Dasouqi was completely aware that if Palestine might share in the Olympic Games, he would be able to win; therefore he showed an interest in the participation of ‘Arab’ Palestine in these games. He wrote in Filastin: “all the other nations started to prepare for the next Olympic Games; did our organizations start to get ready for the participation?”[12] Unfortunately, the High Arab Committee, which its major attention was focused on political issues, although it has allocated a sum of money from its budget for sponsoring athletic clubs, games and sports occasions. At the same time, it did not actually realize the patriotic and ideological importance of sports.

   Since it was officially announced that the 1948 Olympic Games were to be staged in London, a volume of letters and correspondence has been received by the Palestine Post, the main theme of which has been: Should Palestine compete in the Games?".[13] In this regard Palestine Post’s sports editor wrote: “Palestine, in my opinion, which has been based on over 25 years of personal contact with all branches of sport, should send a track and field team and a football team and possibly a basketball team in addition to the four much-fancied sports. Palestine should not dwell on whether or not they have a chance of success in these events, but look to the future. The placing of Palestine on the world sports map should be the endeavor of every sportsman, old or young.”[14]

The question of Palestine's participation in the 1948-Olympic Games was discussed at swimming teachers and instructors conference which was held in Tel Aviv on March 1. [15] Palestine’s four best football trainers, all of whom are ex-members of the Jewish Vienna Hakoah Club, have been invited by the PFA to select a representative Palestine side to participate in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. [16] This came few months before the outbreaks of fights between  Arabs and Jews.

    The catastrophe of 1948 was a big blow to Palestinian sports. However, living in such conditions in the Diaspora has not deterred Palestinians to continue their sports activities and seek to join international sports federations.  In 1968, a decision was made by the PLO to form the Palestine Supreme Council for Youth Care; the PLO member Ibrahim Sukkar signed this decree.  Farook al-Qadoomi assigned Ibrahim al-Zard for secretary of the committee.  In 1969, few branch committees were established in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qattar, and the United Arab Emirates.  After 1970, the headquarters of this committee was moved from Amman to Lebanon.  A new supreme council was formed from qualified Palestinian athletic leaders in Lebanon.  The council started to remove the impacts of the war; new clubs were founded in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Athletic and scouts activities started to rise. The first conference of the Supreme Council of Youth Care was held in Beirut in Suq al-Gharb in 1974 (later it was changed to Palestine Supreme Council for Youth and Sports). 

The ‘actual’ Palestine Olympic Committee POC was established in 1974, during the meeting of the Supreme Committee of Sports and Youth.  In 1976, the statutes of this committee were endorsed.  The POC was not affiliated to the Supreme Council, but it was directly under the supervision of the Executive Office of Youth and Sport and was run by its members. In order to gain recognition from the IOC, the POC began coordinating with the Arab Association, formed in 1976.  POC was accepted as a member of the Arab Association.  Ahmad Qudwa, who was the President of the Supreme Council, became the President of the POC.
 It is clear that the statutes and the basic law of the POC were formed and designed especially to facilitate the acceptance of the application to join the IOC.  The first time the Palestine Olympic Committee (POC) applied to join the IOC was in 1979.   The main obstacle before the POC was the claim by IOC that the POC does not represent a regional area that is internationally recognized.  That was also the reason behind the rejection of  Palestine Football Association PFA.  The IOC did not take into consideration the conditions in which the Palestinians live, such as the Diaspora [Shatat], and the inability of all Palestinians to live on their homeland - Palestine. The members of IOC ‘relied’ on laws which denounced the Palestinian rights; they were also subject to political pressures from different sides. In 1980, during the Olympic Games in Moscow, Palestine applied for membership in the IOC, however, the Palestinian delegates who took part in these games decided to postpone the application because they were advised by the Asian OC to do so, for unknown reasons. In 1982, the Olympic committee was reformed.  The announcement of this reformation was distributed to all Arab and international Olympic committees.  The headquarters of the POC was located in Syria and then moved to Tunis.  Despite the new conditions, the POC in 1984 continued to apply to join the IOC (the year that the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles).
  Later, the presidents of the Palestine sports associations and members of the international associations were invited to attend the meeting of the General Assembly of Sports Associations.  The members of the Palestinian delegation could not obtain the visas to enter the United States, though they were invited officially by the international federations.  The President of the Asian Olympic Committee helped in convincing the committee, which had organized the meeting, as well as the American Embassy in Kuwait, to give visas to the delegation to enter the United States.  Once they arrived in the United States, the delegation began to move in different directions; it had a few interviews with the media and met with other delegations that took part in these games.
Unfortunately, despite all these efforts, the POC could not join the IOC.  However, during the Olympic Games in Seoul, it was accepted as a member in the Asian Olympic Committee (which was a great victory).  Baghdad hosted the location of the new headquarters of POC; they were located in the Palestine Sports Club.

 The Palestinians sought continuously to join the IOC; documents show that there were a lot of letters sent by the POC to the IOC to accelerate this process.  All attempts were not in vain.  In 1989, the POC took another direction in achieving this goal.  In order to get solidarity from international federations, it contacted the teams of the French Sports Workers Federation and the Italian Association for Popular Sports.  The Palestinian national team met with these two teams, in these two countries.  The Italian Association’s President announced that a few popular Italian athletes signed a petition demanding the approval of the membership of POC in the IOC, especially after the Declaration of an Independent Palestinian state in Algeria.  However, these efforts did not succeed. The Palestine Olympic Committee was recognized as a member of the Olympic Council of Asia in 1986.  In 1990, the POC received an invitation to take part in the Asian Olympic Games in China.  Palestine was represented by Ahmad al-Qudwa, Rabi’ Turk, and Rafic Abdel Sayyed. In Monaco, on the 101st Session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it ratified the decision taken by the IOC Executive Board on September 18, 1993, to grant provisional IOC recognition to the Palestinian Olympic Committee. This gave Palestine the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in the United States; it was the start of their entry into the international arena. In 1995, POC was recognized as a permanent member of IOC.
   Since 2009, POC has been headed by Jibril Rjoub, President of Palestine Football Federation. Today, despite the obstacles placed by the repugnant Israeli occupation, Palestinian sports are witnessing remarkable growth and progress. Certainly, one of the reasons for this is the affiliation with the IOC and FIFA, beside the thorough hard-working athletic leadership who struggled to meet the ambitions of the Palestinian people.
   Some opponents believe that Palestine has no right to membership in IOC and FIFA, claiming that it does not meet the definition of independent country status; that there are eight criteria accepted by the international community used to determine whether an entity is an independent country or not. It is generally agreed that an independent state must possess certain characteristics in order to have its existence recognized by the states of the world community: (1) a determinable territory; (2) a fixed population; (3) a functioning government; and (4) the capacity to enter into relations with other states. [17] There should be no problem with having the state of Palestine satisfy these four criteria. Indeed, whether they know it or not, all state parties to the United Nations Charter – including the United States and Israel – have already provisionally recognized the Palestinian people as an independent nation by virtue of UN Charter article (80) and League Covenant article 22(4).[18]
   Palestine's' first participation in Olympics was in Atlanta in 1996. Maher Abu Rmeileh a 28 years old Judoka was the first athlete reached the qualifying standards. Abu Rmeileh carried the hope of his people and the Palestinian flag at the opening ceremony in London 2012.[19]
  The relative underperformance of Arab nations in the Olympics can be explained by a number of variables such as finance, demography, sporting culture, policy and governance. [20] In Palestine beside political conditions that resulted from the Israeli occupation, there were a number of obstacles stood in from Palestinian athletes who participated in the Olympics. Among them was the lack of financial and moral support and the shortage of facilities.
    Baha' al-Farra, the fifth Palestinian runner who took part in London Olympics in 2012 told Sam Sports: I was so glad when I knew that I was chosen to represent Palestine in one of the biggest athletic games in the world. Since that day I am looking forward to present a very positive participation to Palestine and me. I will do everything I could to be in the best shape. I train myself every day in one of the halls and the streets in Gaza, there is no track in all Palestine. We are prohibited from training in the municipal track (earth-soil track) because Gaza Municipality demands that we have to pay monthly fees for this purpose. However we will not get desperate, we still struggle to maintain our fitness and improve our results... Now I am training once a day in the evening because of the lack of a track. I am desperately waiting for the training camp which will give me the opportunity to increase my training and practice competing with other athletes.
Majid Abu Marahil, the first runner who took part in Atlanta 1996 in 10 km and coach of Palestine's national team and companion of Al-Farra's to London urged all the officials in the Municipality of Gaza to give al-Farra and the national team the ability to practice without any conditions that include fees. He said that in general the athlete is a representative of Palestine, and it is a great honor for everyone to see Palestine exists in the biggest international gathering.
The coach Abu Hasira who discovered al-Farrah said: we as coaches lack conditions to refine the athletes. Athletes, especially in Palestine, need to communicate (compete) with other athletes in order to prepare Olympic athletes so they can honorably present in Palestine. [21]
   Olympic times for track and field athletes are timed on a digital timer. They use starting blocks and race on a track that is made from synthetic rubber called Tartan, for which they use spiked shoes to run the track. The POC does not provide athletes with adequate training tools for its athletes, and they have chosen athletes in the past who did not have qualifying scores. Instead, they chose wildcard athletes to attend the last five Summer Olympic Games. Having a great desire to compete at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro 2016, a young athlete Mohamed al-Khatib said he has gone to the POC four times since 2013, and each time they told him he would never make it, that making the Olympics required “good genetics” and a qualifying time, but he never let it discourage him. He said, “They’d break me for a second, but as soon as I left, I’d say, ‘No, God is bigger. If it is genetics, he can make me do it. And I’m not going to go back there until I have a [qualifying time]. They want to talk numbers, then I’ll give them a number.’” The POC International Relations office commented that it could be possible to participate by qualifying score and time; however, we suffer from lack of means and equipment. The POC is working hard on changing that. We have been promised by the International Olympic Committee that [they] will provide us with all necessary
facilitation to establish the track field in Palestine very soon.[22]
   Another committee that was the pride of Palestine is the Palestinian Federation for the Disabled, it was established in 1993 on behalf of a group of injured and disabled victims of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, together with rehabilitation experts from Abu Raya Center - Ramallah, and funded by the Palestinian Ministry for Youth and Sports and the Palestinian Olympics Committee. Its purpose is to enhance the skills and abilities of people with disabilities through sports.[23]

   One of the greatest challenges facing the PPC is the high cost of specialized equipment to enable people with disabilities to participate in sports activities. Much effort goes into fundraising in order to ensure that appropriate equipment is available.[24] The PPC’s main focus at present is to raise awareness of the importance of sports activities for people with disabilities through specialized training programs, workshops, and the formation of committees in various areas throughout Palestine.[25] In Paralympics, Palestine's first participation came at the Sidney Paralympics in 2000, where Husam Azzam won bronze in the shot put event and a silver in Athens. Mohamed Fannuna won the bronze medal in long jump in Athens in 2004.[26]They also face obstacles such as the lack of facilities and support for the officials. As an example, Khamis Zaqout from Gaza, who lost the use of his legs while working on a building site in Israel two decades ago, trains in a park in Gaza City, one of the very few green areas in the cramped coastal enclave on the eastern Mediterranean that has borders with Israel and Egypt. "We face many challenges... We must train outside the Gaza Strip and we desperately need equipment. Nobody would ever believe that a champion could arrive in London without the appropriate clothing or even a discus," Zaqout said.[27]

         Issam Khalidi, an independent scholar living in San Francisco, California, is the author of History of Sports in Palestine 1900 - 1948, One Hundred Years of Football in Palestine in Arabic and English, as well as various articles on the subject of sports included at www.hpalestinesports.net.     


[1] Palestinian Judoka a 28 years , who made history as the first ever to qualify for the world biggest sporting event. Quoted from http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/07/27/228680.html

[2]Palestine Bulletin, 26 April 1927.

[3] According to FIFA rules, only associations representing states could be accepted as members. Thus, Maccabi officials were compelled to invite not only their Zionist political adversary, ha-Po’el, but also Arab teams to join the Palestinian Football Association (PFA). Therefore, in addition to the fourteen Zionist representatives that participated in the first meeting of the new soccer-association directorate, one Arab delegate took part—a member of the Nusseibeh family representing the Arab Sports Club of Jerusalem. However, despite his involvement in this first session, Nusseibeh’s name never again appeared in the directorate’s protocol.

Wingate Sports Archive,  AD1.21/15. Quoted from Tamir, Sorek. Palestinian Nationalism has left the field: A Shortened History of Arab Soccer in   Israel. International Journal of Middle East Studies – 35, (2003).

[4] Khalid ُjawi, al Haraka a-Riyadiya al Falastiniyafi al-Shatat[Palestinian Sports Movement in Diaspora](Damascus. Al-Dar al-WataniyyaLilnashr,2001),  57 – 60.

[5] Ibid

[6]Maccabiah or Maccabiad, Jewish Olympics, held in 1932, 1935. The main purpose of these games was to bring more illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

[7]Palestine Bulletin, 2 May 1932

[8]Difa’, 15 June 1935.

[9] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage, (Boston: Beacon, 2006), p. 9.

[10] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage, p.21.

[11]Difa’,  28 May 1947.

[12]Filastin, 23 August 1946.

[13]Palestine Post, 22 March 1946.

[14]Palestine Post, 22 March 1946.

[15]Palestine Post, 19 February 1946.

[16]Palestine Post, 15 July 1947.

[17]See, M. Akehurst, A modern Instruction to International Law 53 (4th ed. 1982).

[18] Francis A. Boyle, Palestine, Palestinians, and International Law. Clarity Press, INC. , Atlanta, 2003. P. 31.

[19]Palestinian Olympic team was given warm welcome at London city hall, Al Arabiya News, 27 July 2012, online at http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/07/27/228680.html

[20] Mahfoud Amara and Ian Henry, Special Issue: The Olympic Movement and the Arab World- History, Culture and Geopolitics, The International Journal of the History of Sport.

[21]Mahmoud Alloh, Al'ab al-Quwa al-Falastiniyyah, Palestinian Track and Field, Facebook, 24 January 2012, online at


[22] Ash Gallagher, How one Palestinian is racing to get to the Olympics, 24 November 2015, al-Monitor, online at



[25] Ibid.

[26]"Palestine at Paralympics,'' online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine_at_the_Paralympics

[27]Nidal al-Mughrabi, Gaza Paralympians Confident of success in London, August 15, on at 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-paralympics-palestine-idUSBRE87E0LD20120815

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