In Rio last Friday night during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, Mayada Al-Sayad held the Palestinian flag at an arm's length as it furled slightly in the open-top Maracanã Stadium. She walked in a floor-length black and burgundy robe, glancing up toward the large, billowing white flag of the Olympic Games and the 75,000-plus crowd there to watch the Parade of Nations.
Al-Sayad, 23, looked both quietly terrified and overwhelmingly proud— a reasonable mix of emotions for a first-time Olympian. She is also the first Palestinian woman—and just the third athlete in Palestinian history—to officially qualify for the Games on the basis of skill rather than invitation through the International Olympic Committee's "wild card" system. She is the first Palestinian to compete in the marathon.
"I've always wanted to represent Palestine," said Al-Sayad, who will compete in the women's marathon on Sunday, August 14th. "I wear with pride the Palestinian jersey, and I hope to be able to give some sort of small help that this land for once won't be seen in a negative light."
Al-Sayad's appearance at the Rio Games is partly a result of her dual nationality—her father is Palestinian, her mother is German. Al-Sayad was born and raised in Europe. Although her marathon times could not have qualified her for the German team, had she lived in Mount of Olives, her father's hometown in east Jerusalem, it's unlikely that she would have had access to the training facilities that brought her to an Olympic level.
While IOC rules require an athlete to be a national of the country he or she represents, it is fairly common for Olympians who hold dual citizenship to compete for the country where they don't reside—usually one with lower qualifying standards or a less competitive field. Three of the Palestinian competitors at Rio are German nationals, for example, and nine Americans will compete for Mexico this year. Some women like Al-Sayad, who has a nose piercing and runs in neon shorts in Germany, join the delegations of countries where women traditionally haven't been encouraged to play sports.
Sports aren't forbidden for Muslim women, though they're still not fully accepted in some more conservative countries, and year after year, the number of female athletes from Muslim nations in the Olympics rises. Al-Sayad's priority is to motivate more women to compete in sport, she says, and to continue their gains on local tracks and fields at home.
It's difficult to train in east Jerusalem, Al-Sayad said. For one thing, training is less common. She also has to find female-specific gyms or stadiums because those facilities are segregated by gender. In Berlin, Al-Sayad works out at state-of-the-art facilities like Adidas' newly opened Runbase Berlin, where athletes and Adidas officials sip smoothies at the juice bar and a cooler of beer awaits runners post-workout.
Al-Sayad begins her exercises—plank, ladder work, jump rope—meticulously. While she runs through sprints, electronic music thumps in the background. She speaks and runs with the same strong, subtle grace she displayed during the Parade of Nations as the leader of Palestine's six-strong squad, the largest in team history.
As one of two "non-member observer states" recognized by the United Nations (the other is the Holy See), Palestine's appearance in the Games is often steeped in politics. After first being acknowledged by FIFA in 1998, Palestine was recognized by the IOC in 1996 and sent a delegation to the Atlanta Games that summer. A total of 16 athletes have since donned red, green, and white uniforms to compete in athletics events, swimming, and judo. The country has never won a medal, and its best showing at the Games was a 40th-place finish in men's 20-kilometer race walking in 2000.
In the Olympic media cycle, much of the focus on Palestinian athletes tends toward the lack of resources for training, particularly in the blockaded Gaza Strip. Past athletes have spent months in Qatar or Spain training, and have lamented the lack of access to Olympic-size swimming pools.
"It's helped her very much," Al-Sayad's father, Mauwiyah Al-Sayad, said of his daughter's dual nationality. "In Germany she has the chance to get the right training, which in Palestine is very difficult because of the political solution."
Mauwiyah came to Germany in his teens and married a German woman, raising his children—Al-Sayad, her twin sister, and an older brother—with a foot in both lands. Palestinian culture was constant in their lives, except for the Arabic language, which Al-Sayad understands somewhat but only began studying formally in the lead-up to the Games in hopes of easing communication with her teammates.
Al-Sayad's immediate family spends six weeks each summer in east Jerusalem and remains in close contact with her extended family there. They have closely followed Al-Sayad's athletic accomplishments and her pursuit of an Olympic spot. It is a dream for her grandfather, Mauwiyah said, and a dream for Al-Sayad herself to represent a nation she has long been tied to by history and family, and now by sport.