Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Palestinian female Olympian: 'Miracles do happen'

By Matthew Chance and Caroline Cheese, CNN
May 17, 2012 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
Woroud Sawalha will be one of four athletes competing under the Palestinian flag at the London Olympics, and the only woman. Woroud Sawalha will be one of four athletes competing under the Palestinian flag at the London Olympics, and the only woman.
HIDE CAPTION
Palestinian pride
Fight for recognition
International debut
Running in Gaza
Unequal struggle
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Four Palestinian athletes will compete at the 2012 Olympics in London
  • Woroud Sawalha, 20, will take part in the women's 800 meters event
  • Bahaa al-Farra, a 21-year-old from Gaza, will run in the men's 400 meters
  • Al-Farra has no proper track to train on, and works out in a public gym

(CNN) -- Woroud Sawalha knows she won't win a medal at the London Olympics. She isn't likely to get beyond the first round of the 800 meters.

But for the 20-year-old and her three teammates, just competing under the Palestinian flag is a source of pride.

The appearance itself is controversial: the U.N. does not recognize a Palestinian state but athletes have been allowed to compete under a Palestinian flag by the International Olympic Committee and soccer's ruling body FIFA since 1996 and 1998 respectively.

"It means a lot for me that I am female and representing Palestine," she told CNN's Aiming For Gold. "I will represent my hometown Asira ash-Shamaliya, Palestine and my university."

Asira ash-Shamaliya is a village of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants in the northern West Bank, where protests and tear gas form part of everyday life in a region still fighting for independence from Israel after two decades of struggle.

Sawalha, who will be immediately recognizable by her black headscarf, long-sleeved top and long trousers, knows that when she steps up to the line in London, she won't just be representing herself.

Running under the Palestinian flag
Watch London's Olympic tower rise
American sprinter Tyson Gay says he's in his prime and fit and ready for the London Olympics. American sprinter Tyson Gay says he's in his prime and fit and ready for the London Olympics.
Going for gold
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Human to Hero: Tyson Gay Human to Hero: Tyson Gay
Nine-year-old schoolgirl Niamh Clarke-Willis makes history as she presses the button to officially open the Olympic stadium along with London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe. They were joined on stage by TV presenters Gabby Logan and Vernon Kay. Nine-year-old schoolgirl Niamh Clarke-Willis makes history as she presses the button to officially open the Olympic stadium along with London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe. They were joined on stage by TV presenters Gabby Logan and Vernon Kay.
Finger on the buzzer
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
London 2012 Olympic stadium opens London 2012 Olympic stadium opens

"This will reflect on my female friends and on sports in Palestine," she said. "Maybe the view of girls will change from practicing sports in a more professional way and more freely in front of people."

The International Olympic Committee is hopeful that the 2012 Games will be the first to feature female athletes on every team.

Three teams have never sent women. Palestinians have competed in the Olympics under their flag since 1996, sending their first female athlete in 2000.

However, Sawalha believes the fact that she was only told six months ago that she would be going to London is a sign of how lightly women's sport is taken in the Palestinian territories.

She had her first taste of top-level international competition earlier this year at the world indoor championships in Istanbul.

She clocked two minutes 51.87 seconds in her heat for a personal best that was still more than 53 seconds slower than the gold medal-winning time.

Given her lack of preparation and the scant training resources available in her homeland, Sawalha knows a medal is beyond her, so her target is to further improve her personal best.

"Miracles do happen, and with God's help I will hopefully get a good result," she said. "Since they selected me for the Olympics, my running time has gone from four minutes to just under three, so I've seen a big improvement."

Training on pot-holed roads in Gaza, dodging cars and horses and carts, Bahaa al-Farra knows that only so much improvement is possible.

Like Sawalha, the 400-meter runner must rely on an invitation from the IOC to compete in London because neither has reached the required qualifying standard.

When he isn't running, al-Farra works out in a dingy public gym with shabby white concrete walls.

I need a proper track to train on -- at the moment I just run on the roads or on sand
Palestine athlete Bahaa al-Farra

"I need a proper track to train on," he said. "At the moment I just run on the roads or on sand. Also, proper starting blocks are unavailable in Gaza."

So when he arrives in London, he'll not only have the daunting prospect of a first Olympic Games to consider but he'll also have to quickly get accustomed to unfamiliar conditions.

"Hopefully, the lack of training tools won't affect me, and I can prove to the world that we can compete even without them," he said.

For al-Farra, competing in London won't leave him completely fulfilled. He hopes it is only the start of a long athletics career.

"My dream is to become a world-known runner and compete with world champions in overseas competitions and hopefully I can achieve my dream in the near future," he said.

"My dream is to do something for Palestine and show the world that Palestine deserves to live and stand on the podium."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 0944 GMT (1744 HKT)
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 0738 GMT (1538 HKT)
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
January 31, 2013 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
August 13, 2012 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
August 12, 2012 -- Updated 1702 GMT (0102 HKT)
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
August 15, 2012 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
August 10, 2012 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
August 9, 2012 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT)
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
August 7, 2012 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
August 4, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?
ADVERTISEMENT