On Palestine, solidarity, and the Tokyo Olympics
Palestinians walk during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. | David J. Phillip/AP

When the five athletes representing the Palestinian Olympic Games delegation—adorned in traditional Palestinian attire—marched into Tokyo’s Olympic stadium, carrying the Palestinian flag during the Olympic Games opening ceremony on July 23, I was overcome with nostalgic pride.

I grew up watching the Olympics. We all did. Throughout the entire month-long international sporting event, it was the main topic of conversation among the refugees in the Gaza refugee camp where I was born.

Unlike other sports competitions, like football, you did not need to know about the sport itself to appreciate the underlying meaning of the Olympics. The entire exercise seemed to be political.

The politics found within the Olympics is unlike our daily politics. Indeed, it is about something profoundly deeper; relating to identity, culture, national struggles for liberation, equality, race, and, yes, freedom.

Before Palestine’s first Olympic participation in 1996, with only one athlete, Majed Abu Maraheel, we cheered—and still do—for all the countries seeming to convey our collective experiences or share parts of our history.

Inside our small, often hot, and sparsely furnished living room, my family, friends, and neighbors would all gather around a tiny black and white television. It is how we watched the Olympic Games in our refugee camp.

For us, the opening ceremony was always critical. Though the cameras only give a few seconds to each delegation as they pass by, those few seconds were all we needed to declare our political stance regarding every country.

It was no surprise then that we cheered for all the African and Arab countries. We jumped with joy as the Cubans came marching in and booed those who had aided Israel in its military occupation of our homeland.

The raucous taking place in our living room as a small group of people loudly and swiftly made political declarations about every country, pleading their case if why we should cheer or boo: “The Cubans love Palestine”; “South Africa is the country of Mandela”; “The French gave Israel Mirage fighter jets”; “The Americans are biased towards Israel”; “The president some country said the Palestinians deserve freedom”; “Kenya was occupied by the British too,”  was unimaginable.

The judgment call was not always easy to make. Sometimes, none of us could offer a conclusive statement to make a case for why we should cheer or boo. Like an African country that normalized relations with Israel would give us pause. We hated the government but, we loved the people. Many such moral dilemmas were often left unanswered.

Such dilemmas existed long before I did. The previous generation of Palestinians also struggled with such pressing quandaries. I imagine the difficult moral questions raised and answered by members of the refugee camp when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists while on the medal podium during the October 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. On one hand, we loathed the historically devastating role played – and continues to be played – by the US, in arming, funding and politically supporting Israel.

On the other hand, we supported, as we continue to support, African Americans in their rightful struggle for equality and justice. In those situations, we often felt that we should support the players while still rejecting the countries they represent.

The ongoing Tokyo Olympics are hardly an exception to this complex political system. While much media coverage has focused on the Covid-19 pandemic – the fact that the games went ahead in the first place, the safety of the players, and so on – the politics, human triumphs, blatant racism, and much more are still present.

For Palestinians, the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games gives something more to cheer for than usual. Our athletes. Dania, Hanna, Wesam, Mohamed, and Yazan are making us proud. The story of each one of these athletes represents a chapter in the Palestinian saga, one that is rife with collective pain, besiegement. But these stories are also filled with hope for unparalleled strength and determination.

These Palestinian athletes, like athletes from other countries enduring personal struggles–whether for freedom, democracy, or peace– carry a heavy burden.

Such burdens are unknown to those who’ve trained under normal circumstances; in stable countries that provide athletes with seemingly endless resources to reach their full potential.

Mohamed Hamada, a weightlifter from the besieged Gaza Strip, competes in the 96 kg men snatch. In actuality, the 19-year-old is already carrying a mountain. Having endured several deadly Israeli wars, relentless sieges, a lack of freedom to travel, and train under proper circumstances, and, of course, the resulting trauma by taking his first step in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Hamad is already a champion.

Hundreds of aspiring weightlifters in Gaza and throughout Palestine must have watched, filled with hope that they, too, can overcome all the hardship and present at future Olympic Games.

Despite his youth, Yazan al-Bawwab, the 21-year-old Palestinian swimmer, embodies the story of the Palestinian diaspora. A Palestinian who grew up in the United Arab Emirates, now living in Canada while carrying dual Italian and Palestinian citizenship.

He represents a generation of Palestinian youngsters who live outside the homeland and whose life reflects the constant search for a home. Palestinian refugees forced by war, or circumstances, to constantly relocate number in the millions. They too, aspire to live normal lives. And yearn to carry the passports of their homeland with pride and, like al-Bawwab, to achieve great things in life.

The truth is, for us Palestinians, the Olympic Games are not an ethnocentric exercise. Our relationship with it is not simply inspired by race, nationality, or even religion, but by humanity itself.

The debates through which we cheer or boo the nations competing, say much about how we view ourselves as a people and our position in the world. It also gives a glimpse at the solidarity we wish to bestow, and the love and solidarity we receive.

So, Ireland, Scotland, Cuba, Venezuela, Turkey, South Africa, Sweden, and many more, including all Arab countries without exception, can rest assured that we will always remain their loyal fans.

Read more about the political history of the Olympic Games: A short history of the divisive Olympic Games


Ramzy Baroud
Ramzy Baroud

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about Palestine, the Middle East, and global issues for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, an editor, an author of several books, and the founder of The Palestine Chronicle. His books include 'The Second Palestinian Intifada', 'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter' and 'The Last Earth.' His latest book is 'These Chains Will Be Broken'. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. He is currently a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University.