BEIJING Nader Al Massri was not the fastest man on the Olympic track Wednesday night. Not even close. He was the second-slowest of the 39 men who ran 5,000 meters. But the fact that he was at the Bird's Nest at all, running in Lane 12 amongst champions, is nothing short of a miracle. It is the kind of tale that can turn even the most cynical sports fan into a sap.
Al Massri, 28, is a Palestinian who spent the past two years trapped in the war-torn Beit Hanoun section of the Gaza Strip, unable to travel to meets because he was denied permission from the Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. He trained in badly-worn shoes on bomb-cratered rocky roads, and had to dodge gunfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops and between Hamas and Fatah clans.
A Palestinian group used his neighborhood to fire missiles into Israel last year and misfired a Qassam rocket into his house. Israeli raids are common in the town, which sits a few miles from the Israeli border.
Despite the chaotic environment, Al Massri ran whenever and wherever he could. It was his refuge, and he allowed his mind to wander to the Olympic Games. He dreamed of marching in the Opening Ceremonies, and racing on the world's greatest sports stage, representing his wife, three children and the Palestinian people. He realized it was a far-fetched dream, but he chased it nonetheless, and all his neighbors rooted for him.
There is no track in the town, so he ran nine miles a day around the town's alleyways. He first started dreaming about the Olympics 10 years ago, and earlier this year, he received the invitation he'd been waiting for. Though his personal best time was a minute shy of the Olympic qualifying standard, the International Olympic Committee invited him to compete here as part of a special program for athletes from developing nations.
One problem: The Israelis rejected his request to leave Gaza for months, and he began to doubt whether he'd ever make it to the Opening Ceremonies. He applied in January for a permit to travel to the West Bank to train, but was rejected. He said he begged Israeli authorities to let him out and not ruin his Olympic dream. He explained sport should supersede politics. It wasn't until Israeli newspaper Yedioth wrote about his plight and some human rights activists stepped up on his behalf that he was granted permission to travel to China.
As he jogged off the track Wednesday night, drenched in sweat, he had mixed emotions. He was thrilled to be there, but disappointed in his finish.
"It was very difficult to get the proper papers to leave, and I didn't get permission until April," Al Massri said through an Arabic translator after his race Wednesday night. "It didn't really allow me time to train properly for such a prestigious event. For two years, I had no real competition, and I just ran through my town. Of course, I couldn't compete with these champions out there."
Al Massri hung with the pack through 2,000 meters, and then faded. Edwin Cheruiyot Soi of Kenya had the fastest time in their heat (13:46.41), and the Palestinian came across all by himself nearly a minute later.
"I had no endurance to keep up," said Al Massri. "I'm happy and proud that I got to compete and represent Palestinian people, but I am a sportsman, first and foremost, and I am annoyed that I was not able to compete on the same level as the other guys. Athletes need to train for races like this, and I was deprived of that opportunity."
The IOC reserves 90 spots for athletes like Al Massri. Three other Palestininan athletes are here for the Games 100-meter sprinter Ghadeer Ghroof-Gharid from Jericho and swimmers Hamse Abdouh from East Jerusalem and Zakiya Nassar from Bethlehem.
The Palestinian Territories are not a recognized IOC nation, but they have been invited to the Olympics since 1996 and the athletes march and compete under the Palestinian flag.
"It is annoying that I didn't have a chance to really compete, but this has been a great experience and hopefully next time, I'll lower my times," he said. "It's hard to be happy at this moment."