Three years ago, following a drawn-out, diplomatic-security saga, the Israeli delegation landed in Dubai for the FINA World Swimming Championships (in a 25-meter pool). During the opening ceremony, the announcer mocked the delegation and addressed it by its initials, ISR. The organizers did everything in their power to downplay the presence of Israelis in the emirate.
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Last week, when the Israeli national swimming team returned to Dubai for a World Cup series event, they were again ignored. This time there was no ceremony with a walk-past by national delegations, but in everything related to the scoreboard and television coverage, the organizers prevented the word “Israel” or the Israeli national flag from appearing, thereby causing disruptions both to television broadcasts and in publicizing race results poolside.
“In order that our national flag and name wouldn’t appear, the results of every race we competed in were not publicized,” says Gal Nevo, one of Israel’s most senior swimmers, describing the absurd situation.
“Competitors swim with us in the heats in the morning, and expect to see the results on the scoreboard in order to know whether they’ve qualified for the final. But on the screen they’re already broadcasting the next race, without mentioning the names and times from the previous heat. I watched the broadcast on television of the race in which Amit Inbar won a medal. She swam in lane 1, but the broadcast focused completely on the other half of the pool. Of course there weren’t any results [announced] and it was impossible to know whether she’d finished in third place.”
Swimmers from other countries wondered what was causing the apparent lack of organization, and received the explanation from their Israeli counterparts.
“Everyone was really surprised to learn what had caused this situation,” says Nevo. “For some, the penny dropped and they said ‘Wow - that’s it! Now I realize why we couldn’t see all the results on the scoreboard.’ They didn’t expect it and didn’t believe that politics had been brought into the event in such a crude way. I, for one, was surprised by the tremendous amount of empathy the other swimmers showed for us.”
Unlike the prestigious competition in 2010, this time the Israelis were competing in a relatively minor tournament – which is how the Israeli swimmers reached the finals. Inbar’s medal was Israel's first, to be followed by Nevo, Guy Barnea and Yakov Toumarkin reaching the finals in their categories, thereby boosting the Israeli presence in Dubai.
“They sort-of boycotted us, but our achievements made their ignoring us much more prominent,” says Nevo. “It happened too many times, and swimmers from other countries began to notice the phenomenon.”
On the last day of competition the event’s organizers suddenly stopped interfering with the broadcasts and the poolside scoreboard, and at last recognized the existence of the Israeli swimmers.
“We saw a change – Amit was the first to swim in a final, and suddenly we heard the announcer say the word ‘Israel,’” recalls Nevo. “We saw her on the screen and thought maybe it’s a mistake, that one of the producers had failed to notice. There had been a similar mistake the previous day, and then the whole broadcast was disrupted, but this time we realized that the barrier had been breached. “We reached a few finals that day, and saw that we appeared on television together with the flag, were shown warming up before the races and on the scoreboard. Everything was normal, and then I realized just how many times our flag had appeared. Maybe the organizers wanted to prevent it, but apparently they also felt that the situation had become ridiculous and started acting logically. As I was readying for my final I heard the words ‘Gal Nevo from Israel,’ which is not like hearing ‘Gal Nevo from ISR.’”
While competing, Nevo and his colleagues did not comprehend the size of their achievement. It was only a few hours later, when they were out of the water and able to look at the bigger picture, that they realized the importance of what had happened.
“All the time we were too concerned with how we swam, was the time good enough, what it means in terms of our training programs, how we divided up our energy, where our style needs improving and other professional nuances,” he says. “Then suddenly you say, ‘Wait, look what we did and what happened around us.’ That excited me more than all the medals. Suddenly I realized that this is one of the major reasons that I do what I do – to represent Israel anywhere in the world, to show its positive sides and that its athletes are good.
“Suddenly you arrive in a country that has refused to recognize you until now, and know that the next time we’ll be here they won’t play those games with us. I don’t know how many television viewers we’re talking about, but the people in the emirate saw the Israeli flag over and over again, and were exposed to the country’s sporting aspect.”
Nevo, 26, from Kibbutz Hamadia, is the Israeli team’s unofficial captain, and has often been quoted on the wider aspects of representing his country. Two years ago, while competing in the World Championships in China, he told Haaretz about the pride he felt when, in his heat, he beat all the swimmers representing Arab countries. This time again, albeit in a more refined manner, Nevo emphasized his patriotic streak in the pool.
“I swim for myself and love the competitiveness, but that’s only part of the picture,” he explains. “The dream is to represent your country, and this has been part of me since I was 17 years old, when I had to decide whether to become a combat soldier or an outstanding athlete. My [sporting] environment wanted me to continue to swim, but on kibbutz you grow up on the value of serving in the most combative unit and to give your most [to the country]. There was a bit of a clash between these desires. The achievements I have reached prove that I made the right decision for myself, and the desire to help the country as an athlete is always foremost.”