Why Palestinian Athletes At The Olympics Matter

The Olympic Games will begin soon; and despite the ironies and cliches that inevitably accompany the games, I am always drawn in by the Opening Ceremony — a time when, for a moment, a parade of colors and smiles seem to eclipse the turmoil of global politics. And this year, in the long, chaotic march of nations, I’ll be watching for one figure in particular — a woman in an embroidered robe, hoisting a red, white, green, and black flag. Her name is Mary al-Atrash, and she is a Palestinian swimmer headed to the 50 meter freestyle. Should the camera glance over at her and her five companions, the banner onscreen will flash the name of our homeland, a flicker of recognition beamed across the watching world: Palestine. We are here.

To those who have never been denied the dignity of identity, it may be impossible to grasp just how much this simple recognition means to families like mine. My father, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, spent half his life stateless, on the margins. I've told his story before — a tale of striving for ground to stand on, and the daily battle for respect in the face of so many slamming doors. We are a people with an anthem, shared memories, and collective grief, but we are told in so many ways that we don't exist, not reallyor at the very least, we don't count.

I've grown up privileged as an American citizen, but this has not shielded completely from the pain of these denials. Traveling in the Middle East, I've been subject to interrogations and detentions, marked as "suspicious" because of my Palestinian name. On American college campuses, I've been the target of hateful comments from people who see my ethnic background as a political threat — I've been called a "dirty terrorist" and "anti-Semite," among other slurs. I'm seldom given the chance to reply in full, to tell these accusers that I have only ever denounced anti-Semitism, that I hate "the conflict," hate the violence, at least as much as they do after all, my family, rendered refugees in 1948, were some of the first to fall victim to this decades-old tragedy.

Yet it can be exhausting to be constantly politicized, to possess an identity that triggers such strong responses in which we have so little say. Palestinians are just people. There's more to us than what you think you know about the "conflict." And we never asked for any of this.

I feel certain that al-Atrash must feel this way sometimes, too. I don't know her politics, but I do know this: She loves to swim. Yet even her simple love for the sport has been defined, and curtailed, by politics. On her journey to the Olympics, she’s had to make do with sub-par resources available in her West Bank town (there are no Olympic-sized swimming pools accessible to her there), while a few miles away, on the other side of military checkpoints, Israeli athletes train in state-of-the-art facilities. Yet she possesses that particular quality we Palestinians hold dear: sumud, our steadfast perseverance. She has not quit, and she still smiles. In photos, her family, friends, and coaches beam, too. As she's dreamed and struggled, she has not been alone. This is one of our secrets: We've lost so much, but not each other.

When she at last arrives at the races in Brazil, the facilities might make al-Atrash feel small — back in Palestine, the largest pool is just half Olympic-regulation size. Training in an undersized pool is a major disadvantage, and al-Atrash is aware that most of her competitors have a serious edge there. Her own coach, Musa Nawawra, has lamented that al-Atrash, and Palestinian athletes in general, lack the resources they need to develop their talents.

As Palestinians, we are newcomers to the Olympic Games, denied participation until 1996 due to political controversy — but we’re no strangers to exclusion. Even in the United Nations, Palestinians are afforded only an “observer” seat, and no vote. The isolation this enforces is more than symbolic; it curtails virtually every aspect of life, from travel and trade to education and athletics. There is the tragedy of lost lives on every side of the intractable conflict — and it has cost the Palestinian people generations of lost potential.

At 22 years old, al-Atrash probably knows that better than most. She may always wonder how fast she would have swum, had she been free to train in a proper pool. My father, too, lives with too many "what if"s; he was blocked from attending medical school in Egypt when, in a moment of political tumult, the country suspended student visas for Palestinians. Yet both of them have crafted something durable and beautiful inside their constricted worlds. My father became an engineer instead, and he's spent his life building a strong foundation for his children — a gift I'll never be able to fully fathom, or repay. al-Atrash has drilled in half-sized pools, churning her too-tight laps, retaining at least a little hope in a world that offers no promises. "I'm so happy," she told reporters recently — not for her fame, but because she would soon "raise the name of Palestine" before a watching world.

Perhaps I won’t see al-Atrash draped in a medal by the end of the games — but just by arriving in Rio, she and her companions will clinch a prize for all Palestinians. On race day, our name will be spoken, our colors seen. My father, now retired, will lean towards his TV, boyish and giddy, as al-Atrash squares off for the her 50-meter swim; hundreds of miles from him, I'll hold my breath and watch along, too. And for a moment, all three of us will experience the quiet exhilaration of being seen.