JERUSALEM (Reuters) - When Maher Abu Rmeileh makes his bow on the Olympic judo mat in London this month, he will become the first Palestinian to compete at a Games on merit.
The 28-year-old father of two ensured his participation in the Olympic judo competition in the under-73 kilo division at a recent qualifying event in Japan and will be one of five Palestinian participants in London.
“I am so proud to be the first Palestinian to have qualified ... this was a dream for me and finally I have fulfilled it,” he said.
“I am sure that every athlete dreams of competing at the Olympics through qualification and not with the help of a wild-card invitation.”
Abu Rmeileh has even more reason to be proud as he will carry the Palestinian flag at the opening ceremony on July 27.
“I am happy, full of hope and I am ready for everything,” he added.
At previous Olympics, Palestine sent swimmers and track athletes under an International Olympic Committee’s programme for nations whose athletes have not managed to attain the qualifying minimum.
Abu Rmeileh’s ticket to London is all the more remarkable considering his antiquated training facilities look as if they have been frozen from before World War II.
His home base is a small gym at the Al Quds Sports Club, situated in a cramped alleyway in Arab East Jerusalem.
Chairs are stacked along the back wall of the hall and for each training session, young judokas and their mentors lay out mats on the stone tiled floor. The hall has no changing rooms or showers and participants hide behind a stage curtain to change.
While many of his opponents will dedicate most of their competitive lives to preparing for the Olympics, Abu Rmeileh said financial considerations meant working at his father’s scarf shop in Jerusalem’s Old City came first.
“Work is my priority, but because I love judo and because I have qualified for a very important event, I am trying to organise my work and my training,” he said.
“I open the shop in the morning and at around five or six in the evening I go to train. My father takes the strain off me when I have to train.”
As the Games draw near, he has increased his training regimen to two hours in the morning and two in the evening. For the last weeks in the lead-up to London he will train abroad.
Abu Rmeileh said his dedication to judo was instilled through his family’s love of sport. His father was his first coach and he started to train at the age of seven.
He spoke with pride of his family’s love of sport.
“My parents and grandparents love sport and the Abu Rmeileh family is well known for this in Palestinian circles,” he added. “There are many athletes among them, including my uncles and my brothers.”
Abu Rmeileh lives 10 minutes’ drive from West Jerusalem’s biggest martial arts facility, one of many where Israeli judokas train, but he says he has never competed against any of them, nor taken advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities.
Judo, along with windsurfing, is Israel’s most successful Olympic sport and has yielded the Jewish state three Olympic medals.
Abu Rmeileh’s coach, Hani Halabi, who is also the head of the Palestinian judo union, said that as long as there was no peace agreement with Israel there could be no cooperation.
“The Israeli union tried many times to arrange joint events but we have refused ... I cannot ask a Palestinian boy to compete against an Israeli while his father is in jail, or his house has been demolished and he can’t go through checkpoints,” Halabi said.
“Only when we have a real and just peace, no settlements, no prisoners in Israeli jails and we have free country, we will be ready to have joint activities,” he added.
The IOC has made efforts to facilitate cooperation between the two national Olympic committees and has convened a number of meetings, which it said had been held in a “constructive and friendly atmosphere.”
Despite the proximity of the two, the Palestinians compete in Asia and Israel are affiliated with European sports bodies.
Zvi Varshaviak, chairman of the Israeli Olympic Committee, said that many offers had been made to the Palestinians to cooperate in various fields but that they had been declined.
“I don’t have details specifically on judo, but we have offered the Palestinians to cooperate and to take advantage of our facilities and so far they have refused. They have got cold feet for political reasons,” Varshaviak told Reuters.
Ten Palestinians have competed at the Olympics since their flag first flew in Atlanta in 1996.
Runners Bahaa al-Farra and Worood Maslaha as well as swimmers Ahmed Jabreel and Sabin Hazboon are set to join Abu Rmeileh on the team for London. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)