Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel’s own Parade of Nations on display in its multicultural Olympic delegation

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As Israel's 37-member delegation to the 2012 London Olympic Games finishes its first week of competition, the country's feisty athleticism is not the only thing on display. Nearly half of Israel's delegates were born outside of Israel and came there as olim from all corners of the globe, from South America, Africa, the former Soviet Union and North America. The delegation's diversity reflects Israel's own multiculturalism and presents an image of the country that belies the misconceptions that delude so many of its detractors.

Indeed, many of the athletes who have made the biggest splashes at these games are immigrants. Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, the Israeli tennis doubles team that stunned the world yesterday when they defeated top-ranked Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka to advance to the tennis quarterfinals, immigrated to Israel as children from South America - Ram from Uruguay and Erlich from Argentina.

A significant number of Israel's Olympians came to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago, and have made their own mark in this year's Games. Yakov Toumarkin, who was born in Chelyabinsk in 1992, is having perhaps one his best competitions, becoming only the second Israeli in history to compete in a swimming final, finishing in 7th place. Gymnast Alexander Shatilov, who immigrated to Israel with his family from Uzbekistan in 2002, has also made an impact on his sport, becoming the first Israeli gymnast to medal at the international elite level with his bronze medals on the floor exercise at the 2009 and 2011 World Championships. This year, Shatilov is equally poised and determined to medal in London; speaking to Ha'aretz about qualifying for the all-around final and floor exercise finals, Shatilov remarked:

"I got the job done today and I really feel like I'm in with a shot of winning a medal. Today was good preparation for the final. I'm as good as anyone participating here."

Several other Israeli athletes have roots in the FSU, including badminton player Misha Zilberman, Georgian-born judoka Iosef "Soso" Palelashvilli, and gymnasts Felix Aharonovich and Valeriya Maksyuta.

Zohar Zimro, who was born in Ethopia and immigrated to Israel at the age of ten, is a distinguished marathoner who almost missed out on competing when he failed a drug test, but was partially exonerated based on evidence that the substances found in his sample were used to treat the symptoms of asthma, from which he suffers.

Israel's delegation also has two American athletes, both of whom are competing in the track and field events. For pole-vaulter Jillian Schwartz, the decision to make aliyah at the age of 30 and compete for Israel in the London Olympics began after winning gold in her event at the 2009 Maccabiah. Her decision to do so wasn't just about sports, however. In an interview with Tablet, Schwartz commented that at the Maccabiah "I really did feel a strong connection [with Israel] that I didn't expect," making the decision to come to Israel a personal one as well as a professional one.

The decision to compete for Israel as a new Israeli was also personal for track athlete Donald Sanford:

"While attending Central Arizona College, the sprinter began dating basketball player Danielle Dekel, an Israeli who grew up on the Ein Shemer kibbutz. Sanford later transferred to Arizona State, where he began running 400 meters, the event that he will compete in this weekend. Sanford and Dekel married in 2008, and he began his citizenship process in 2010. Schwartz and Sanford, both former U.S. citizens, have grown close this summer as they prepared for the London Games. ‘He's an awesome guy,' Schwartz said. 'He feels great pride in competing for Israel.'"

Despite the controversy surrounding Israel at the Games this year, from international outrage and disappointment over the IOC's denial of a minute's silence at the Opening Ceremonies to honor the Israelis slaughtered in Munich in 1972 to the stomach flu that has supposedly stricken the Iranians so that they won't have to compete against Israeli athletes, Israel is competing well at these Games. In addition to success in swimming and gymnastics, Lee Korzits, for example, is continuing Israel's Olympic tradition of being among the best performers in windsurfing, with her sights set firmly on the silver medal.

Israel's success at this year's Games marks a great deal of progress since the country first competed in the Olympics in 1952 in Helsinki. Israel's strength as a multicultural society, with athletes whose roots stretch across the globe, is no doubt a major contributing factor.

Andrea Nadel

 

 

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