Photo: Edmée Van Rijn

Photo by Edmée Van Rijn


By Kim Constantinesco

Mohammed Al-Khatib has the Olympic flame in his heart, and it burns for the love of his country.

The 26-year-old from Palestine has never been to the Olympics before, but he’s expending all of his time and energy trying to get there so that he can become the first from his country to win a medal in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash.

“I want to bring happiness and joy to my country,” Al-Khatib said.

The yoga instructor from Hebron, an area in the southern portion of the West Bank, figures that the dangerous and volatile area needs a big victory, so why not have it come in the form of an Olympic runner?

Al-Khatib has been training on his own for the past three years. However, conditions in Palestine and a lack of resources have made things difficult. Even getting on a track presented challenges.

“I would ask the school’s security guard for the keys to the track, but sometimes he would not give them to me on school days,” Al-Khatib said.

With that and no sprinting coach in the vicinity, Al-Khatib moved to Houston in mid-January thanks to a successful Crowdfunding campaign.

“At some point, I knew if I wanted to succeed at this dream, I have to step it up a little bit,” Al-Khatib said.

Inspired to Represent His Country

Al-Khatib grew up during times of intense conflict between Palestine and Israel.

“At times, we couldn’t leave the house,” Al-Khatib said. “My entire family would have to stay in one room in the house — the safest room — because every night there would be fighting and shooting. It was bad, but what I have gone through has given me so much strength and so much hope.”

Perhaps it’s that strength and hope that’s propelling Al-Khatib and his Olympic quest.

Running was just a hobby until 2012. He liked the freedom it provided, and it was something he could do almost anywhere.

Then, two very important victories spurred Al-Khatib’s Olympic dream.

Swimmer Ruta Meilutyte, 15, won a gold medal for Lithuania at the 2012 London Games.

“I remember thinking, if she can win an Olympic medal at the age of 15, what prevents me, or anyone from winning an Olympic medal?” Al-Khatib said. “She proved that a determined athlete from a small country could bring home a medal.”

A year later, Palestinian Mohammad Assaf won the Arab version of American Idol.

“Life in Palestine is pretty tough, but by representing his people, he gave them hope. For a couple of hours every week we forgot about our troubles,” Al-Khatib said. “We dared to dream about what we could achieve. That’s when I decided I wanted to win something for my country.”

From the Ground Up

Al-Khatib began by learning sprinting workouts on YouTube. He went to his university’s asphalt track, a knee-killer that wasn’t even a full 100 meters in length, and got one of his friends to man the stopwatch; and that’s how he got his start.

A year into his training, he traveled to Texas for a conference, where a friend introduced him to world-class sprinting coach Bill Collins, who also holds an indoor world record at the Masters level in the 60 meters. Al-Khatib was put through two workouts by Collins during his visit.

Collins saw Al-Khatib run an 11-second 100 meter dash without starting blocks, spikes, or the right surface. That’s when Collins convinced the naturally-gifted sprinter to move to Texas for some quality coaching.

“A lot of people thought my idea was crazy at the beginning. Now I’m coached by one of the best coaches in the world,” Al-Khatib said.

Once arriving in Texas over a month ago, Al-Khatib started working on technique — how to shave 1/100th of a second off here and there based on his form.

Needing to run a qualifying time by July 11, Al-Khatib still has to shave half a second, but now he’s in good hands where he trains five days a week for two hours a day under Collins’ watchful eye.

If he qualifies for Rio, it’s likely that big sponsors from Palestine will back him.

Notoriety and money aren’t why he’s doing this, however. Whether or not he qualifies for the Olympics, he wants to use his degrees in sociology and anthropology, and implement health changes in Palestine.

“I want to use sports as a tool for change, and raise awareness for good spiritual, mental, and physical health,” Al-Khatib said.

With that, we think Al-Khatib will bring happiness back to his country no matter what the stopwatch says.