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Joyner-Kersee trains with Palestinian women

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MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH | April 17, 2014 11:08 AM EST | AP

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EL BIREH, West Bank (AP) — Dozens of Palestinian girls and women, most of them newcomers to the world of running, got a lesson in the basics Thursday from a track and field great — three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

The American, considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, came to the West Bank to encourage women to be physically active despite cultural restrictions and lack of opportunities.

In her workshop, women jumped over low hurdles, did sit-ups and then competed in a good-natured race. Most wore long pants and yellow T-shirts with the slogan "Run for Health, Run for Hope," while a few participated in their traditional long robes over sneakers.

Many girls wore headscarves common in the Palestinian territories. Two women hiked up their robes to get over the hurdles.

"The impression I got from them is it's nothing they won't try," the 52-year-old Joyner-Kersee said. "They were eager, they were very respectful and they gave their all, from parents down to the daughters."

Joyner-Kersee won gold in the heptathlon and long jump at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and gold in the heptathlon at the 1992 Barcelona Games. She also won a silver medal and two bronzes in a career spanning four Olympics.

Joyner-Kersee came to the West Bank as part of the U.S. State Department's "sports envoy" program and is wrapping up a weeklong visit Friday. She is among more than 220 U.S. athletes who have visited more than 50 countries since 2003 as part of the program, the U.S. Consulate said.

"It's been really awesome for me," she said. "I loved all the girls and all the people I have come in contact with."

Underlying Thursday's playful session was a serious problem — a rise of obesity among Palestinians due to changes in lifestyle and nutrition. Palestinian society once engaged mostly in farming or manual labor, but has become increasingly sedentary, with young people — like their contemporaries elsewhere — spending hours in front of computer and TV screens.

At the same time, nutrition has changed over the last generation, with some healthier traditional foods being replaced by processed goods.

"We are a flabby society," said Alaa Abu al-Rub, director of the nutrition department in the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. "Fifty-seven percent of adult Palestinians are overweight or obese. This is due to little physical activity and the improper food."

In part, he blamed lack of spaces for physical activity, including parks, tracks and gyms. The problem is more severe for women; in most of the culturally conservative Palestinian territories, it would not be considered acceptable for women to jog in the streets.

Over the past three years, a Palestinian women's group, Juzoor, has tried to open up new opportunities with funding from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. The group has set up five gyms for women in communities where there were none before, including the town of Qalqiliya and four villages.

"Today, we brought Jackie as a model to inspire women," said Majd Hardan of Juzoor.

Among Thursday's participants were 25 women who now train others in the five gyms and also give nutritional advice. Joyner-Kersee met separately with the trainers.

Dina Abu Rajab, a university student, said 50 women regularly attend a gym in the village of Zaatara in the southern West Bank. Abu Rajab, 22, said she lost 12 kilograms (26 pounds) after she began working out and now works as a trainer. "Our women have become much more fit," she said.

Manal Hassan, 50, a mother of eight, said she joined a gym in her village of Bitin two years ago and lost weight, but regained it when she had to take a break because of her husband's health problems.

She struggled as she tried to follow the drills led by Joyner-Kersee, but said she was determined to get fit. "The club is great," she said. "I can lose weight and learn new things about healthy life."