Palestinian sports just made history: 28-year-old Maher Abu Ramila from Jerusalem’s Old City, met the Olympic qualifications and earned a trip to compete in the 2012 London Olympic games next month. Thus he has become the first Palestinian athlete to compete in the games on his own merit, and not as a “solidarity gesture” — awarded by the Olympic committee as a mark of identification.
Abu Ramila, father of two, met the qualifications while simultaneously working in his father’s scarf store in the Old City (“Abu Ramila Scarves”). “There are no words to describe how I feel,” he told Ma’ariv on Sunday. “It is the dream of every athlete, and it was my dream too.” Abu Ramila has been involved in judo ever since the age of 8 (“my father was a Judoka and that’s the reason I fell in love with the sport”) and trains in the “Al Hillel” club in East Jerusalem. He travels to Ramallah three times a week in order to train in a larger club.
The breakthrough in his career took place in the World Judo Championship in 2010 in Tokyo, when he overcame a Hong Kong contender in the first round. Abu Ramila was barely defeated in the second round by a contestant from Portugal, but succeeded in garnering 20 points in the tournament. Two weeks ago he received the long-awaited phone call: the Olympic Committee had decided that thanks to his successful performance in Tokyo, he met the longed-for qualifications.
The Palestinian delegation is composed of four additional contestants: a 400-meter runner; an 800-meter runner; and two 50-meter freestyle swimmers. The Palestinians first participated in Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 after they were invited by the Olympic Committee, on the heels of the Oslo Agreement.
In preparation for the prestigious judo competition, Abu Ramila trains twice a day; two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, under the direct directives of the Palestinian Chief of Staff, Jibril Rajoub. But he does not even dream about meeting Israel’s veteran Judoka, Arik Zeevi. “I don’t know Israeli contestants and I have no contact with them,” he says. In any event, the two are not likely to meet: Zeev is in the 100- kilogram or below category, while Abu Ramila is in the 73-kilogram category. “I am focusing on my goal of reaching the semi-finals,” explains Abu Ramila. “But even if I don’t, I view it as an achievement that I have reached the Olympics on my own merits, not as a sign of solidarity. Also, it is of course a good feeling to represent Palestine.”