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Palestinian female Olympian: 'Miracles do happen'

By Matthew Chance and Caroline Cheese, CNN
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Thu May 17, 2012
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.
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Palestinian pride
Fight for recognition
International debut
Running in Gaza
Unequal struggle
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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
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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.
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"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."

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