RAMALLAH: Mohammed Khatib is 25 and dreams of winning Palestine’s first Olympic medal.
The yoga instructor with a sociology degree first starting dreaming of flying the Palestinian flag after winning a 100-meter sprint a few years ago.
So every day, he rushes at full speed on an asphalt track — neither very professional nor very safe — in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank where he lives.
“There are football stadiums but for athletics almost nothing. There are 100-meter tracks, but they are asphalt and can cause injuries,” laments the young man wearing a keffiyeh in the colours of the Palestinian flag around his neck and with a curly mop of hair falling over his forehead.
But Mohammed Khatib has no time for the lack of infrastructure because the stakes are high and the smiling boy with crinkled hazel eyes has always set the bar high.
He wants to “create hope and happiness” for Palestinians, who have been waiting 70 years for international recognition.
The idea came to him in 2013, the year the Gazan Mohammed Assaf won Arab Idol — one of the most watched Arab TV shows.
“I saw how happy people were. They partied all night because a Palestinian had won thanks to the votes of the public across the Arab world. I told myself ‘imagine what it could be like if a Palestinian won a global competition’.”
‘They think I’m crazy’
Since that night listening to the horns and cheers, Khatib has trained alone with exercises he found on YouTube. In three years, he said, he has managed to lower his 100 meter time from 15 seconds to 11.
But it is still far from the 9.58sec world record held by Usain Bolt, and a distance from the 10.16sec he needs to qualify for the Rio Olympics this year.
Mohammed wants to believe.
“Many people think I’m crazy for choosing the hardest discipline to win — the 100 and 200 meters — but I’m sure I can do it and I’ll show them,” he insists.
There were times when he lost hope but he never stopped going every day and sprinting 100 or 200 meters, headphones attached to his ears — “psychedelic trance, believe it or not, and dub reggae for the rhythm”.
And when he runs, he “meditates at the same time”. Nothing stops him: not even the construction of a new building in Ramallah that encroaches on his athletics field, including cranes carrying iron sheets over the track.
For Mohammed has already been through a lot, he said from the garden of the stone house where he lives with his roommates.
He has not yet known international competitions, adrenaline-filled stadiums or the stress of the starting blocks, but he has entered competitions “where the lanes are not curved but square, with 90-degree turns”.
Even if he doesn’t make the time, other potential qualification routes exist: a small number of places are usually given to those who fell just short of the time, while some countries that have no representative are also granted a ‘wildcard’ spot.
Of the five members of the Palestinian delegation to the London 2012 Games, four were wildcards. The fifth, judoka Maher Abu Remeleh, was the first Palestinian in Olympic history to qualify on merit.
Palestine has never won an Olympic medal and its national committee is under no illusions about the difficulty of doing so.
But, as with qualifying matches for the football World Cup, participation in the Games is not only a sporting event but a political statement in support of a Palestinian state.
Khatib is convinced he can set an example: Israel “wants to convince us that we can’t do anything, you will always remain backwards, that’s what they want the Palestinians to believe”, he said.
“I will prove them wrong. I prefer to use [my energy] to build something for my society: the idea of the Olympic Games is to create hope, to show that we are able to succeed.”
To take the next step after years of training without supervision, he needed a push from outside. For that, he found a coach, but in Texas. After obtaining an American visa — far from a formality for Palestinians — he needed to raise nearly $8,000 for three months in America.
So he turned to the Internet. Launching a fundraising page, he was amazed at the result. “In three or four days, I met the whole amount.” A few days later, it was close to $13,000.
If after his training he is fast enough then “we are ready to support him and send him to train abroad as we do already with several other athletes”, Munther Masalma, Secretary General of the Palestinian Olympic Committee, said.
“This year we hope to achieve an unprecedented feat and send between eight and ten Palestinian athletes to Rio,” he added.
Ten more reasons for hope for the Palestinians.