An Athlete Challenging Perceptions
By Hussam Fares Azzam.
I was born with cerebral palsy. Yet I am considered a star athlete and an Olympic medal holder. I began participating in athletics in Gaza as early as 1996, My goal was to challenge perceptions of what it means to be disabled. This I have done and continue to do.
I am 36 years old and live with my wife Noha, and my nine children in a small home in North Gaza.
I throw the javelin. In my international debut in a competition in Sydney in 2000, I won the first Olympic medal ever for Palestine. It was a great honour for me, and many PWDs in my country also felt it was a medal for them. But this was only the beginning: I continued training and in 2002, I earned a bronze medal in a competition in France and a silver medal in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
In 2005, disaster hit me. I stopped playing sports because of family problems and the lack of resources at the Palestinian Paralympic Committee Gaza (PCC). This affected at lot of athletes with disabilities in Palestine so I refer to that period as a difficult time for most PCC players. It was a period when I lost my daily routine, the problems at home became bigger and yet all I could think about was sports. It was that important to me, as it was for many other athletes in the same situation. Sports was where we could make our capabilities and capacities visible.
The situation improved: In 2010, I was again contacted by the PPC, this time regarding The Mercy Corps’ Sports for Change programme. This is a programme funded by the European Commission, and it started that May in Gaza. The program provides disabled athletes with high-caliber sports programming including equipment, training space, coaching, and transportation. They encouraged me to take up my training again and with the assistance that was provided, I agreed. In the beginning I faced lots of problems, but the support of my trainers and the project coordinators was very strong and they kept me on the right path.
It was also an encouragement that with my many years of experience in athletics, the Mercy Corps chose me to be part of the youth with disabilities (YWD) leadership component. I participated in hour-long live radio sessions to share these experiences — the difficulties, successes, and the importance of family and civil society support — and to motivate YWD interested in sports. It is important to make our capabilities visible to disabled and non-disabled alike.
Support is vital, but support cannot come from organizations and NGOs only. Support from your family is also important. Luckily I had this: My family is a strong source of encouragement and motivation. I would like to add that I am proud of my children who tell their friends about my accomplishments. My wife shared my efforts with me, saying: “I usually help him in his daily life and offer him all the help he needs at home so that he can concentrate on his training. We often watch him as he trains and we attend social events with him to show him that we are proud of him and we always support him.”
With the backing of my family and trainers, I was able to put in extra hours to prepare for the latest international completion in Tunisia which took place in June 2011. This was a qualifier for participating in the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Looking to the coming year (2012), all I can say is this: A number of players dream of joining the games in London. It is the pinnacle for us as athletes. I am honored to represent my country in this event and I am proud of the Mercy Corps and the PPC for supporting us through the Sport for Change program.
My experiences show that PWDs can overcome hurdles and challenge perceptions of our capabilities. Sports and championships make this visible. Sports and competitions like the Paralympics become eyeopeners for people who are blind to what we can do and to our possible contributions to the growth and development of our societies. The athletes’ achievements also become a matter of pride for all PWDs and help build our self confidence both individually and collectively. Sports overcome boundaries and helps integration. Which is why we need to do more for PWDs in this field, not less.