Friday, June 22, 2012

Palestinian judoka Abu Rmeileh makes Games history

In the tiny locker room of a small sports club in east Jerusalem, Maher Abu Rmeileh carefully ties the black belt around his blue judo gi before beginning an intense training session ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Participating in this year's Olympic Games, which start in London next month, is a double honour for Abu Rmeileh, who last month became the first-ever Palestinian to qualify to compete in the world tournament.

Although Palestinian athletes have participated in the Games before now, it had -- prior to Abu Rmeileh -- been by virtue of an honorary invitation traditionally extended by the Olympic Committee to countries which fail to reach qualifying standards.

"I feel great," he smiles. "I am very happy to be the first Palestinian to qualify for the Olympics. I have achieved something great -- I got the 20 points needed."

Fighters compete in events based on their weight and Abu Rmeileh, who comes from the Old City of Jerusalem, will be in the 73kg (160 pounds) category.

With the start of the Games just five weeks away, Abu Rmeileh is training twice a week at his home club in annexed east Jerusalem, which doubles as a wedding hall during the nights.

Half of the small, whitewashed hall of the Jerusalem Crescent Club is covered with coloured mats. A few shelves high on the wall display the silverware won in various competitions.

The other half of the room is stacked with dining chairs.

Abu Rmeileh spends most of his time sparring with five other judokas. He is one of the oldest in the group, and also a teacher.

He spends two hours every day running, swimming and training at the gym of the local YMCA in east Jerusalem, and another two hours of judo later in the evening.

For this 28-year-old athlete, the historic trip to London comes after more than 20 years of training, which began when he was a small child accompanying his father, who was a judoka himself, to his training.

"I became attached to this sport with its fighting spirit and the discipline it enforces," he says.

Qualifying for the London Games is evidence to Abu Rmeileh that dreams come true.

"I always thought reaching the Olympics was an impossible dream. But now, after qualifying, 'impossible' means nothing," he said.

"I will try my best with all the strength I have to go and win something. I am not going for the honour but to win in the name of Palestine."

It is also a dream come true for his coach, Iyad Halabi.

"The Olympics is a big dream for everyone and it is the chance of a lifetime," he says.

Hani al-Halabi, who heads the Palestinian Olympic squad, holds high hopes for Abu Rmeileh.

"The fact that a Palestinian qualified to go to London is a great achievement for Palestinian sport," he says.

"He deserved to qualify," he told AFP. "He already had some good results that helped him qualify, especially in the last tournament he went to in Japan."

The young judoka's success should serve as an example to other parents, he says.

"We need parents to encourage their children to get involved in sports, especially judo, and to build a generation that is able to represent Palestine in international competitions."

And his long-term hope is that once the Palestinians achieve their long-awaited state, they will be able to bring in professionals from overseas to help train their athletes.

"I hope we'll have a free Palestinian state like any other country so we can bring coaches and specialists from abroad to achieve more in sports," he says.

In total, five Palestinians will be representing their country at the Games.

The other four are Bahaa al-Farra, a 400-metre runner from Gaza, Wurud Sawalha, an 800m runner from Nablus, Sabine Hazbun, a swimmer from Bethlehem, who specialises in the 50m butterfly and 50m freestyle, and Ahmed Jibril, who lives in Egypt and competes in the 400m freestyle.

Despite Abu Rmeileh's huge success, none of family -- which has a shop selling scarves near Damascus Gate -- will be able to be with him when he competes in London.

"No-one in my family will be able to come and see me because it was a late qualification," he told AFP. "And it will take place during Ramadan during high season for our shop in the Old City."

But even from distant Jerusalem, Abu Rmeileh will no doubt feel the influence of his father when setting foot on the Olympian judo mats in London.

"My dad told me he cannot express his pride enough," Abu Rmeileh says. "He says I am living his dream."

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