Twice a day Hossam Azzum, 41, takes a complicated ride in two taxis that take him clear across the Gaza Strip to his final destination, a sandlot otherwise known as the Al Jazeera Club. Azzum is an accomplished Paralympian in the track and field sport of shot put, the distance pitching of an iron ball, which he does while seated in a performance chair.
Azzum is a paraplegic, and one of the best in the world at his sport.
Soon, his training will be put to the highest test for any athlete. Azzum is competing in his fourth Paralympics Games in Rio on September 14, 2016—after a lengthy hiatus from the sport.
“The first time I participated in the Paralympics was in the Sydney games in 2000 for shot put. I won the bronze medal,” Azzum said while suiting up for another day of training in Gaza. “I was the first Palestinian medalist to reach this level for both disabled and non-disabled competitors.”
In his next Paralympics in Athens in 2004 he won silver. Azzum has also taken home the gold in the Asia and Africa games and medaled in the World Championships.
Despite the victories and being the one and only member of the Palestine National Paralympian team, Azzum does not find much support at home in Gaza. None of his training gear meets international standards. While most athletes practice throws in a grass field, Azzum tosses from a small patch of green encircled by dusty terrain.
Six years ago Azzum took a break from competing. His wife died during childbirth and a number of close relatives had severe accidents all around the same time. Later, during the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza, the Israeli military destroyed his house. Azzum, remarried now with a total of eight children from both relationships, had fled to relatives during the attack. Today he lives in a smaller, bare-bones house.
The fact that he is such a high-ranking athlete, but receives little government support for his international achievements is a sore subject for Azzum. In other countries he would be honored and not in poverty, he explains.