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Remembering Palestine’s First Olympic Star, Majed Abu Maraheel

Rest In Power

As the ongoing genocide in Occupied Territories continues to wreak havoc, it was recently announced that former Palestinian Olympian Majed Abu Maraheel is among the latest casualties of the devastating siege imposed on Gaza by Israel.

The 61-year-old former track star— who’s widely considered an icon in both his homeland and across the region—  tragically passed away on June 11 following a kidney failure that was unable to be treated due to a lack of medical supplies caused by restrictions imposed by colonial forces. His death comes just weeks before the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Another personification of the harsh realities faced by Palestinians, the loss of Abu Maraheel, once again, highlights how dire the situation is and how crucial it is for international governments to take action and urgently step in to put and end to their unjust suffering.

In an interview with local media outlet Paltoday TV, members of Abu Maraheel’s family revealed that they had unsuccessfully attempted to evacuate him to Egypt as the Rafah crossing was forcibly closed, contributing to the worsening of his condition.

To honor the life of one of the Arab World’s most esteemed athletes, below, we remember Abu Maraheel’s inspiring legacy.

He was born in a refugee camp

Making it big in the realm of sports is already challenging enough, but achieving success as an athlete born in a refugee shelter is an accomplishment only few can match. Abu Maraheel was born in the camp of Nuseirat in Gaza in June 1963. Coming from a modest family of Bedouin farmers, initially, all odds seemed to be stacked against the long-distance runner as not only did he come from a low-income background but his parents were forced to flee their home following the Nakba in 1948. 

He was the first athlete to represent Palestine at the Olympics 

Abu Mahaleel rose to fame following his participation in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA. As the first-ever Palestinian to carry the country’s flag at the quadrennial competition, he also became the first Palestinian to ever compete in the international tournament as a whole. A runner in the 10KM race, Abu Mahaleel finished 21st with a time of 34:40.50. Since, over 20 Palestinians managed to follow on his path, representing their homeland across different disciplines and sports in the next decades.

He was also a successful football player…

Prior to his career as a track runner, Abu Mahaleel’s love for sports was sparked through football. Having started by competing at school level, he later joined Al-Zaytoun Sports Club upon its founding in 1981, playing alongside his brother Mohamed, who was a defender like himself, and Magdy, who was the team’s goalkeeper. In his time, he managed to qualify his side for the Gaza Strip Premier League, one of Palestine’s top divisions, playing almost every game he could before retiring in 1994 and switching to athletics.

…As well as a busy coach

Aware of the impact he made at the 1996 Olympics, Abu Mahaleel took on multiple leadership roles to help push other athletes reach the same level of sporting success. Following his retirement, he became the coach of Palestine Olympic Committee’s athletics team, and served as the vice president of the Central Athletics Committee in Gaza. He also held positions as a committee member in the Palestine Athletic Federation as well as a board member for his former football team, Al-Zaytoun Sports Club.

As a coach, Abu Mahaleel mentored several Palestinian athletic teams, including those that competed at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou and the 2019 Arab Athletics Championships in Cairo. He also prepared the Palestinian team for the 2017 Arab Athletics Championships in Tunis, though the team was unfortunately unable to participate due to restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

A notable achievement in his post-retirement career includes the coaching of Nader el-Masri, another Palestinian from Gaza, who competed in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

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