Nader al-Masri, winner of the 2011 Gaza Marathon organized today by UNRWA. According to UNRWA:
More than 1,400 Palestinians were up before dawn on Thursday to take part in the first-ever UNRWA Gaza Marathon, which runs the entire length of the coastal enclave.
As the sun rose, around 50 runners gathered at the start line at the entrance to Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, bouncing nervously as they waited for the starting whistle.
Just nine people signed up to run the full 42-kilometre stretch that ends at the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.
Most of the other competitors were schoolchildren in brightly-coloured T-shirts, who ran short stretches of the race in a relay format, with more than 1,200 taking part through the morning, each one covering between one and four kilometres.
Halfway through, another six Palestinians began the 13.1 km half marathon and towards the end, 150 runners from the Gaza Athletics Federation joined in for the last eight kilometre stretch.
Organised by UNRWA, the runners have collectively raised more than US$ 1 million in sponsorship which will go towards the Palestinian refugee agency’s Summer Games programme held every year in the territory, spokesman Chris Gunness told AFP.
There were no surprises when it came to the race’s winner, 31-year-old Nader al-Masri, a Gazan from Beit Hanoun, who entered the 5,000 metres at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and who is hoping to enter the 2012 Games in London.
“This is a very happy day for me because it is the first-ever marathon in Gaza,” Masri told AFP before the race.
Masri had hoped to complete the course in two hours 30 minutes, and came in just a little over his target, at two hours, 42 minutes and 47 seconds, he said.
There were just two international participants – Frenchman Sebastien Trives, who is deputy director of UNRWA’s Gaza operations, and his colleague Gemma Connell, an Australian who organised the event.
Both are first-time marathon runners.
“This is a very important day for Gaza. It’s a message for freedom,” Trives told AFP.
“The marathon is the maximum length you can run in Gaza but they hope one day to be able to run further,” he said of the territory which is exactly 42 kilometres in length and has been under an Israeli blockade since 2006.
“I’m incredibly excited and buoyed by the enthusiasm of all the Palestinians who have been involved,” said Connell, 28. “It is very exciting to be here for it. I just hope I can make it to the end.”
A version of this story first appeared on AFP.
On the other hand, perennial UNRWA-bashers Nicole Brackman and Asaf Romirowsky used the occasion to pen a rather nasty little piece on “corrupting sports in Gaza” in which they somehow manage to object to a statement by UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness that ““It just shows the world that kids in Gaza just want to be like kids anywhere else in the world. They don’t want to live in this terrible and locked-up environment.” It takes a rather sad and peculiar fixation on UNRWA as the secret source of all things evil to turn a fund-rasing marathon for youth summer games into being “indoctrinated in hate and ignorance.”