Palestinian athlete defies odds

GAZA CITY (AP) – Hussam Azzam isn’t your everyday world-class athlete. He gets around in a wheelchair, lives in a refugee camp, has no sponsors and scrapes by on a $300 monthly stipend in the dirt-poor, forlorn Gaza Strip. Despite the tough conditions, Azzam heads to the Paralympic Games in Athens next month as a top contender in the shot put and discus competitions. The Games for disabled athletes, held every four years after the Olympics, begin September 17. «I am paralyzed, but my brain is still functioning. My determination is stronger than my illness,» said Azzam. Azzam has won many local and regional competitions – he carries a collection of prizes and photos in a shaving bag – and also captured the bronze medal in the shot put at the 2000 Sydney Games. This time, he has his eyes set on the gold. «I’m very proud because I have already proved to the world that we as Palestinians can win medals, not just have honorable participation,» he said. Azzam is one of two Palestinians set to compete at the Athens Games, which will be attended by 4,000 athletes from 145 countries. Mohammed Fanouna, a 25-year-old blind athlete from Gaza, is scheduled to participate in the long jump and javelin. The impoverished Gaza Strip is an unlikely place to produce serious athletes. It has few open spaces and is a flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Azzam, 29, lives with his wife and three children in Jebaliya, a squalid refugee camp of 100,000 people on the outskirts of Gaza City. Stricken by polio when he was 3 years old, Azzam said he became interested in sports as a child after watching healthy children playing. He started with table tennis. Teasing from other children only strengthened his determination. «I told myself that I will defeat this and I will be a man that will bring honor to my family and nation,» he said. Late in his teens, he took up the discus, shot put and javelin. Azzam trains five days a week, taking Mondays off for physical therapy and resting on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. In the morning, he lifts weights at a spartan training center in Gaza City. In the afternoons, he spends two hours training with his coach on a nearby field. Just getting to the training center, a tiny room stocked with low-tech weight machines donated by the German government, can amount to a marathon. Cab drivers, unwilling to lift his wheelchair, often refuse to pick him up. Others will travel only on main roads, forcing him to push himself for up to a kilometer through the chaotic, unpaved streets of Gaza City to reach the gym. At first glance, the burly, smiling Azzam, who wears a baseball cap and sunglasses even indoors, does not appear disabled. However, the polio restricted his movements. He throws the discus with just two fingers because the arc of his arm is limited. Although Azzam said he stays out of politics, the conflict with Israel is a constant factor. Azzam had to receive permission from Israeli officials just to travel to Athens. «I’m trying to send a message to the world that the Palestinians are a nation that wants to live as any other nation,» he said. At the Games, Azzam won’t compete against any Israelis. Paralympic organizers said no Israeli athletes are registered to compete in his events. In any case, Azzam’s focus will be on the field: «I’m a man who is practicing sports. I’m not a politician. I want to live in peace with all human beings.»

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