Olympic dreams: Palestinian swim team braves pollution to train in Gaza waters

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The young Palestinian swimming squad dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, though they know that is improbable. (AFP)
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Aged between 11 and 16, they make up a rare swimming club in the Palestinian enclave. (AFP)
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Environmental experts say the water near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, where the swimming club trains, has the lowest rates of pollution. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2018
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Olympic dreams: Palestinian swim team braves pollution to train in Gaza waters

  • Conditions are far from perfect; the waves make serious training difficult and they have little equipment
  • ‘We lack even the simplest equipment such as goggles and swimsuits’

BEIT LAHIA, Palestinian Territories: On one of the world’s most polluted coastlines, 30 young Palestinians dive head first into the sea off the Gaza Strip, their minds filled with dreams of Olympic glory.
Aged between 11 and 16, they make up a rare swimming club in the Palestinian enclave, and perhaps its only mixed-sex one.
Coach Amjad Tantish talks through a warm-up before they race from the trash-strewn beach into the sea as he continues to bark instructions.
Conditions are far from perfect; the waves make serious training difficult and they have little equipment.
But Tantish explained that there are no free public swimming pools in the Gaza Strip, so they had to brave the sea.
“We lack even the simplest equipment such as goggles and swimsuits,” he said. “We don’t have any funding.”
The Mediterranean hugs the entire 40-kilometer western border of the Gaza Strip, but almost no one enters its waters.
The desperate shortage of energy and lack of sanitation infrastructure mean around 100 million liters of poorly treated sewage are pumped into the sea every day, according to the United Nations.
In the worst spots along the shore the sea is tinted brown.
More than 95 percent of tap water is polluted, and water-related diseases are the primary cause of child mortality in Gaza, according to the World Health Organization.
The UN says the situation has come about mainly because of Israel’s crippling land and sea blockade of Gaza, warning recently the enclave is “imploding.”
Israel says the measures are necessary to isolate Hamas, the group that runs Gaza and with which it has fought three wars since 2008.
It accuses the group of squandering international aid on arms and fortifications.
Israel has seized dozens of diving suits and other swimming aids it says Hamas was seeking to smuggle into Gaza for military purposes.
For those still willing to get wet, environmental experts say the water near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza has the lowest rates of pollution.
And so the team train there a few times a week, helping to fuel their dreams.
Tantish says the squad dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, though he knows that is improbable.
Even getting a visa to leave Gaza via Israel is an almost insurmountable hurdle.
“We have many opportunities to participate in outdoor training camps and in Arab competitions, but travel is a major obstacle,” he said.
The Palestine Olympic Committee sent only six athletes to the 2016 Games.
Four of those, including the two swimmers, were invited to attend despite not meeting the minimum requirements.
But even they had regular access to pools and neither were based in Gaza.
Abdul Rahman, 15, said he hopes to become a “hero and achieve first place in international competitions.”
Mixed-gender activities are rare in conservative Gaza, particularly in the sporting arena.
The girls mostly wear long black swim trousers and red blouses, with their heads largely uncovered.
Tantish, 42, said in the past it “was not an acceptable idea, we faced many difficulties and troubles.”
Now, he said, attitudes have changed.
“Families drop their daughters off to practice swimming and the proportion of women reached 30 percent.”
Rania, 32, was walking with her husband along the beach but stopped to watch the swimming.
“I don’t think being religious stops our girls from being like other people or from having this beautiful ambition,” she said.
Most of the girls joining this year decided to get involved at their own initiative, Tantish said.
Ruqiya, 14, said she loves the atmosphere at the club.
“I started learning to swim three years ago and recently I joined the team. My family supports me and I train and play with my friends in the sea.”
She dreams of becoming a professional: “We want a large swimming pool specially to train for the Olympics.”


’Pig’ British tourists to be deported from New Zealand

Updated 16 January 2019
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’Pig’ British tourists to be deported from New Zealand

  • The family have been involved in a string of incidents in the country, including accusations of littering, assault, not paying for restaurant meals and intimidating behavior
  • "They're worse than pigs and I'd like to see them out of the country," Auckland mayor said

WELLINGTON: Members of a British family have been branded “worse than pigs” and face deportation from New Zealand after a spree of bad behavior that left normally easygoing Kiwis outraged.
The family have been involved in a string of incidents in and around Auckland and Hamilton, including accusations of littering, assault, not paying for restaurant meals and intimidating behavior.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff led national outcry at the tourists’ antics, demanding the police take action. “These guys are trash. They are leeches,” he told a local radio station.
“If you say one time ‘I found a hair or an ant in my meal’ you’d believe it but they find it every meal that they have as a way of evading payment. That’s a criminal activity.
“They’re worse than pigs and I’d like to see them out of the country.”
New Zealand’s assistant general manager of immigration, Peter Devoy, said the family had been issued with a deportation notice on the grounds of “matters relating to character.”
One 26-year-old member of the family on Wednesday pleaded guilty to stealing NZ$55 ($37) worth of goods from a petrol station.
The family attracted extensive media coverage in New Zealand after a video showed them leaving beer boxes, bottles and other rubbish strewn on a popular beach.
When a woman asked them to clean up their litter, a child in the group can be seen on video threatening he would “knock your brains out.”
Stuff Media reported that one family member hit a journalist with her shoe after being approached for comment.
A member of the family told the New Zealand Herald they have now decided to cut short their holiday and will return home this week.
John Johnson insisted his family were of good stock, claimed his grandfather was the “10th richest man in England” and said he was made to feel “very unwelcome” in New Zealand.