By Ramzy Baroud
When the Palestinian Olympic team of five athletes — wearing traditional attire and carrying the Palestinian flag — entered Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony last month, I was overcome with pride and nostalgia.
I grew up watching the Olympics. All of us did. The month-long international sports event was always the main topic of discussion among the refugees in the camp in Gaza where I was born. Unlike other sports competitions, such as football, you did not need to care about the sport itself to appreciate the underlying meaning of the Olympics. The entire exercise seemed to be political.
However, the politics of the Olympics is unlike daily politics. It is about something profoundly deeper, related to identity, culture, national struggles for liberation, equality, race and, yes, freedom.
Before Palestine’s first Olympic participation in 1996 — when only one athlete, Majed Abu Maraheel, competed — we cheered, and still do, for all the countries that seemed to convey our collective experience or share part of our history.
In our Gaza refugee camp, in a small, often hot, simply furnished living room, my family, friends and neighbors would gather around a small black and white television set. For us, the opening ceremony was always critical. Though each delegation was often only shown for a few seconds, that was all we needed to declare our political stance regarding each and every country. It was no surprise, then, that we cheered for all the African and Arab countries, jumped for joy when the Cubans came marching in, and booed those that had contributed to Israel’s military occupation of our homeland.
Imagine the chaos in our living room as a small crowd of people made loud and swift political declarations about every country, making the case for why we should cheer or boo. “The Cubans love Palestine,” “South Africa is the country of Mandela,” “The French gave Israel Mirage fighter jets,” “The Americans are biased toward Israel,” “The president of this or that country said the Palestinians deserve freedom,” “Kenya was occupied by the British too,” and so on.
The judgment was not always easy as, sometimes, none of us would be able to make a conclusive case as to why we should cheer or boo. For example, an African country that normalized relations with Israel would give us pause for thought. Many such moral dilemmas were often left unanswered.
These dilemmas existed even before I was born. The previous generation of Palestinians also struggled with such quandaries. For example, when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, it must have posed a difficult philosophical question for the residents of my refugee camp. On the one hand, we loathed the historically devastating role the US played — and continues to play — in arming, funding and politically supporting Israel. Without such support, Israel would have found it impossible to maintain and profit from its ongoing system of military occupation and apartheid. On the other hand, we supported, and continue to support, African Americans in their rightful struggle for equality and justice.
The ongoing Tokyo Olympics are no exception to this complex political system. While much media focus has been placed on the coronavirus pandemic — the fact that the Games are being held at all, the safety of the athletes and so on — the politics, the human triumph, the racism, and much more are also still present.
As Palestinians, we have more to cheer for than usual this time around. Our athletes — Dania Nour, Hanna Barakat, Wesam Abu Rmilah, Mohammed Hamada and Yazan Al-Bawwab — are making us proud. The story of each of these athletes represents a chapter in the Palestinian saga; one that is rife with collective pain, besiegement and ongoing displacement, but also hope, unparalleled strength and determination.
These Palestinian athletes, like those from other countries who are enduring their own struggles — whether for freedom, democracy or peace — carry a heavier burden than those who train under normal circumstances, in stable countries that provide their competitors with seemingly endless resources as they aim to reach their full potential.
Hamada, a weightlifter from the besieged Gaza Strip, competed in the 96 kg men’s weightlifting. Metaphorically, the 19-year-old had already lifted a mountain just to get to Tokyo, having survived several deadly Israeli wars, a relentless siege, a lack of freedom to travel and train under proper circumstances, and, of course, the resulting trauma. By taking his first step in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, Hamada was already a champion. Hundreds of aspiring weightlifters in Gaza and throughout Palestine must have watched him in their own living rooms, filled with hope that they too might overcome all hardship and represent their country at future Olympics.
Al-Bawwab, a 21-year-old swimmer, embodies the story of the Palestinian diaspora. A Palestinian who grew up in the UAE but now lives in Canada while carrying dual Italian and Palestinian citizenship, he represents a generation of Palestinian youngsters who live outside the homeland and whose life is a reflection of the constant search for home. There are millions of Palestinian refugees who were forced by war, or circumstances, to constantly relocate. They aspire to live a normal and stable life, to carry the passports of their own homeland with pride and, like Al-Bawwab, to achieve great things in life.
The truth is, for us Palestinians the Olympics are not an ethnocentric exercise. Our relationship to the Games is not simply inspired by race, nationality or even religion, but by humanity itself. The dialectics through which we cheer or boo convey so much about how we see ourselves as a people, our position in the world, the solidarity that we wish to bestow, and the love and solidarity that we receive. So Ireland, Scotland, Cuba, Venezuela, Turkey, South Africa, Sweden and many more, including all Arab countries without exception, can be certain that we will always remain their loyal fans.