Tokyo Paralympics: Husam Azzam hopes to become inspiration for Palestinians

Shot putter competed in Japan as his son battled for his life back home in Gaza

Husam Azzam made the final adjustments to his seat. He warmed up and took a few practice throws before bringing the iron shot to rest between his chin and neck, his other hand gripping the support pole. He closed his eyes and breathed, in an attempt to clear his mind before making his first throw.

For Azzam, the veteran Paralympian shot putter and the sole representative of Palestine at the 2020 Paralympic Games, the 7.62kg sphere was not the only weight bearing down on him at the Tokyo National Stadium on Sunday.

Around 5,700 miles away in his home of Gaza, Azzam’s son Mohamed is fighting for his life in a hospital bed.

During protests that took place at the Gaza/Israel border on August 22, Mohamed was among the 41 Palestinians who were wounded when Israeli forces fired tear gas and live rounds at protesters near the border fence. Mohamed was hit by a sniper bullet in the leg.

“They’re saying they need to amputate his leg, until the hip, in order to try and save his life,” an emotional Azzam told The National after his final. “He is currently in a critical state.”

Mohamed, aged just 16, had been denied permission by Israeli authorities to travel from Gaza to a better hospital in West Bank to receive treatment that could save his leg and perhaps his life, Azzam said.

Time is running out. Azzam added that Mohamed is suffering from internal bleeding and infection which, if left untreated, could claim his life. “It is not for sure that he will be saved.”

Azzam initially received the phone call about Mohamed as he was leaving Gaza, having just made the arduous crossing of the Rafah border into Egypt, from where he was due to fly to Tokyo.

He was faced with a decision few fathers would have ever have had to make; whether to continue to represent his country on the world stage, or return home to be with his wounded son.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Azzam has been faced with such horrors. In all too similar circumstances in 2018, his oldest son Kamal was also shot in the leg by an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldier following protests.

Since then, doctors have been working to save his leg. But without access to advanced medical treatment, the outcome is looking bleak.

“In Palestine, children are stripped of their childhoods,” he said. “Their lives are taken for granted.”

Athletes typically come to the Games hoping to spread a message of hope and inspiration. For 45-year-old Azzam, who won bronze in Sydney 2000 and silver in Athens 2004, the decision to continue to Tokyo was an act of resistance and to deliver a message of awareness.

“For the children who are injured in Palestine, they go to hospitals that do not have equipment that is sufficient to treat them,” says Azzam. “They get rejected by the Israeli authorities to pass into the West Bank or inside the Israeli land or anywhere else to get proper treatment.”

In the Israel/Gaza conflict in May this year, human rights groups reported that 66 children were killed and 610 injured by Israeli airstrikes and missile attacks. Hospitals and health facilities in the strip were overwhelmed with the injured and the dying.

Israel maintains it is acting in self-defence against rocket fire from Gaza.

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We will create more athletes that will come and represent Palestine to prove that we exist
Husam Azzam

Azzam and his family thankfully escaped physical harm, but the trauma and paranoia of years of enduring conflict resurfaced during the bombardment.

“It is never a safe time in Gaza,” says Azzam.

In the 2009 conflict, his home in Jabaliya Refugee Camp was destroyed by Israeli rocket fire. He lost everything he owned, but managed to find his first Paralympic medal in the rubble, the bronze he won in Sydney 2000. The silver medal he won in the Athens 2004 shot put final was never found, along with many other medals and accolades he had collected over the years.

The grief of losing his home at a time when he also lost several members of his family was enough to force the then triple paralympian to retire from sport. It was several years later in the lead up to Rio 2016, when Azzam was encouraged out of retirement, to compete again for his country.

In both Rio de Janeiro and now in Tokyo, Azzam has been the only para-athlete representing Palestine, something which he sees as a responsibility. “To be a source of inspiration for all Palestinians, to show that we are here and we can compete, and participate, and take on challenges, it means everything to me,” he says.

In the F53 shot put finals on Sunday, Azzam finished eighth out of nine in the field with a season’s best of 5.58 metres, two metres short of the distance that won him the silver in Athens.

He had hoped he could emulate the successes he had in the 2000s in Tokyo, however he admits he could not find the strength nor the focus to do so, while awaiting any development around Mohamed’s recovery.

Azzam, who like most in Gaza is rarely permitted to leave, or travel internationally believes he came to Tokyo to fulfil another purpose.

“Despite everything we have to go through, [Palestinians] are able to live through all that and participate in international events such as the Paralympics and prove our presence on the ground.”

For the many Olympians and Paralympians, the anti-climax after the games conclude can be both confusing and daunting. Many athletes struggle with the decision about whether to continue their careers or take a different path.

Meanwhile, Azzam faces the prospect of returning to a wounded family, in a country fractured by endless rounds of conflict and blockade. Something he says, will not stop him from helping the athletes of the future.

“We will create more athletes that will come and represent Palestine to prove that we exist. We will win a lot more medals and make the country proud,” he says.

Azzam flew out of Tokyo on Wednesday. Due to complications of getting into Gaza, it could take several days to be allowed to cross into his besieged city from the Egyptian Rafah border.

At which time, it could be too late for Mohamed.

Updated: September 2nd 2021, 6:54 PM
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