By Phillip Whitten
JANUARY 26. Earlier this month I came across a heart-wrenching story in my local newspaper, The Arizona Republic. It seems that an aspiring young Palestinian swimmer, 17 year-old Raad Aweisat, who had been training at the West Jerusalem YMCA until “Palestinian- Israeli violence broke out more than three years ago,” was now training for the Olympic Games in a chilly, hyper-chlorinated, makeshift pool in the backyard of some of his neighbors.
Why? After the outbreak of the intifadah, the story goes, “the YMCA told Aweisat to either join the Israeli Swimming Federation, or find somewhere else to swim, according to his father.” Nonetheless, young Raad was training (in secret because the pool did not have an Israeli building permit) “for the Athens Olympics, where he …will be the first Palestinian swimmer to represent his people at the Olympics,” writes the AP’s Lara Sukhtian.
The story goes on to explain: “The qualifying speed for the Olympic 100-meter butterfly event is 58 seconds. Aweisat, with limited financial resources, a primitive swimming pool and only three hours of training a day, finished the 100 in 58.95 seconds during the Palestinian national swimming competition in August….Nevertheless, Aweisat will be at the Olympics, said Ibrahim Tawil, head of the Palestinian Swimming Federation.”
It’s a great story, with all the classic drama of David versus Goliath. You can’t help but root for the kid, the underdog struggling against overwhelming might and bureaucratic red-tape.
And, indeed, the story proved irresistible to news media around the world. It was picked up and either reprinted or elaborated upon in the Washington Post, London Times, New York Times, Guardian, Minnesota Star Tribune, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. MSNBC picked it up, as did CNN and Reuters. It was reported in at least 60 countries in newspapers, radio, T.V. and on the Internet. At least half a dozen friends e-mailed the story to me from various points around the globe.
Inevitably, Raad’s plight and courageous fight were used to raise funds. The Palestine Monitor web site published an appeal by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Maryland. “Help Raad, the Palestinian Olympic swimmer,” the group wrote, and “you will receive a tax-deductible notice in 4-6 weeks.”
Even the Voice of America was taken in. In a story written by David Schickert and broadcast on January 21, announcer Dave Byrd says: “Aweisat was practicing at the YMCA near his neighborhood in Jerusalem when violence broke out in September 2000.”
Echoing Sukhtian’s original story, he goes on to report: “The YMCA told Aweisat to either join the Israeli Swimming Federation, which as a Palestinian he did not want to do, or find somewhere else to swim. There was only a 17-meter pool in the area, located in the backyard of several connected homes. Aweisat's father gathered nearby villagers together to lengthen the pool by digging until it reached an acceptable 25 meters.”
It is undeniably a great story. It trots out the usual villains – the big, bad Israelis, this time aided by the bureaucratic Christians. And it casts Raad, with his pure, apolitical, Olympic dream as the spunky victim.
The only trouble is: it’s dead wrong. None of the reporters or news media bothered to check out the allegations or interview a single official from the YMCA or Israeli Swimming Federation. If they had, they would have learned that almost every aspect of the story is either false or a misrepresentation of the facts.
We decided to redress that oversight.
First, the easy stuff:
• The “B” qualifying standard in Raad’s event, the 100 meter butterfly, is 56.16 seconds – not 58 seconds, as Mr. Tawil is quoted as saying. The “B” standard is used if a country sends only one swimmer per event. (The “A” standard, for countries sending two entrants, is a much faster 53.49 seconds.)
• Raad is credited with swimming 58.95 seconds at last summer’s Palestinian national championships – far from the B qualifying standard, but not impossibly so. However, noting that Raad swam 1:02.96 at last year’s World Championships in Barcelona — fully four seconds slower – we checked out his performance at the Palestinian nationals held in Batir last September (not August). It turns out the meet was held in a “short course,” 25-meter pool. The Olympics are held in a “long course,” 50 meter pool, and qualifying standards for the Olympics must be achieved in a 50-meter pool. The reason: Short course times are faster because of the additional turns – two extra turns in a 100 meter event. So Raad’s 1:02.96 puts him almost seven seconds off the B qualifying standard.
• Even the 58.95 second short course time which Raad is credited with swimming is suspect. According to a reliable Palestinian source who asked not to be identified: “Raad did not swim 58.9 or anywhere near it. One has to take into account his father is the national coach, his uncle is the referee, and the two of them are on the bureau of the Palestinian Swimming Federation.” Corruption in sport? We don’t know for certain, but it has been known to happen before.
Now, for the major pillars of the story: first, Sukhtian’s charge that the YMCA demanded that Raad join the Israeli Swimming Federation (ISF).
Knowing how Y’s operate – as independent organizations with no connection to any government — I found that charge highly improbable. But, unlike Sukhtian and the news organizations that circulated her story, I asked Jerusalem International YMCA head coach Barri Avnerre to respond. Here is what he said:
“Raad Aweisat joined the Jerusalem YMCA swimming team in the beginning of 1999 with a time of just under two minutes for 100 meters freestyle, and swam here until the end of 2001, when he did 1:03 for 100 meters butterfly.
Noam Zvi, President of the ISF and Director of Swimming Programs at the high-powered Hapoel Jerusalem sports club, commented that on numerous occasions he tried to bring Raad and some other promising young Arab swimmers to Hapoel Jerusalem with no success. He said that he offered them free admission to the pool and free training.
“They always said ‘tomorrow,’” he said, “but they never showed up.”
He also said he invited the swimmers to take part for free in local and national Israeli competition. “They always said ‘okay,’ but they never showed up,’ Zvi said.
“Everybody around here has made great efforts to help the Palestinian swimmers to no avail,” commented Dr. Buky Chass, university professor, T.V. color commentator for swimming and former Israeli National Technical Director. “They (the Palestinians) are under political pressure not to cooperate with the Israelis.”
Despite the political pressure, until recently Raad put sport before ideology. “During his years at the Jerusalem YMCA Raad, along with other Arab swimmers, was an integral part of the Y swimming team, taking part in all activities, such as workouts, competitions, training camps, and trips abroad,” said Coach Avnerre.
In August 2001 – almost a year after the outbreak of the initifada — Raad traveled to Hungary as one member of an eight-swimmer team representing Jerusalem in a large international competition.
What about the alleged choice Arab swimmers were told to make – either join the ISF or find somewhere else to swim?
“Not true,” said Coach Avnerre. “No one at the Jerusalem International YMCA demanded Raad – or any other swimmer — join the Israeli Swimming Federation. We have swimmers here from the USA, Italy, Turkey and Palestine – all on the YMCA team, swimming alongside the Israeli swimmers. The Jerusalem Y swimming team accommodates all swimmers, regardless of race, religion or nationality. In fact, we had the daughter of a top Palestinian official, Mrs. Hannan Ashrawi, swimming on the team for years.”
So what, if anything, did the ISF ask the Palestinian swimmers to do?
Coach Avnerre recounted that at the end of 2001, the Israeli Swimming Federation decided that swimmers could not represent both an Israeli club — the YMCA – in national events and another nation in international events. "So our Arab swimmers were given two choices: To join the ISF and continue representing the YMCA team in national events; or to join the Palestine Swimming Federation and represent Palestine, both inside Israel and abroad."
Avnerre explained that in either case, the Arab swimmers were more than welcome to remain as members of the YMCA and to continue training there with the other swimmers.
"Some of the swimmers chose the first option, and a few of those have since become medalists in the Israeli national age group championships. Others, including Iad (Amos) Hushia who represented Palestine in three world championships, chose the second option.
“Unfortunately, Raad's father, along with Mr. Tawil, decided to choose a third path, leaving the YMCA and trying to coach the children on their own. Thus, instead of training with some of the top Israeli swimmers and under professional coaches, Raad chose to work out under much inferior conditions. His improvement was slowed down considerably, as he swam just under 1:03 in Barcelona last July.”
CNN reporter John Vause added a chilling, avaricious element to the story in his broadcast on “CNN Sunday Morning” on January 11: “Three years ago before the start of the intifadah, Raad trained at the YMCA in West Jerusalem. But then, because he was Palestinian, he was given two choices. Either join the Israeli swim team or pay to use the pool.”
“That’s not true either,” said Avnerre. “Like others with financial problems, Raad Aweisat paid a reduced fee at the Y. No one is ever rejected here for financial reasons.”
So was there ever was a reason for Raad to leave the Y?
“No,” said Avnerre emphatically. “Over ten percent of our swimmers are Arab and there was never a legitimate reason for Raad to leave. In fact, as Raad was never expelled from the YMCA team, there would be no problem in his re-joining. However, he has other choices. There is a YMCA in (primarily Arab) east Jerusalem, with an indoor swimming pool, where he would also be welcome to train”
Ironically, both Hussein Aweisat and Ibrahim Tawil took their first coaching course at the Jerusalem International YMCA, with Head Coach Avnerre as their mentor.
Why, then, does Raad Aweisat train in his homemade pool and not the YMCA? The reason, apparently, is that his father, Hussein Aweisat, the coach of his team, got into a dispute with YMCA officials and pulled his team in protest. More than half of Raad’s teammates decided not to follow Coach Aweisat and continue to swim at the Y. Raad, obviously, had no choice: he had to follow his father.
There was, indeed, a sad story to emerge from the waters of Jerusalem’s swimming pools, but it was not the story that made the newspapers and other media around the world. Rather, it was the story of how ideology and sloppy reporting can totally distort reality and muddy what should be the crystal-clear waters of international sport.
Dr. Buky Chass contributed to this story.