Among the six athletes on the Palestinian team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, one very non-Palestinian person stands out: an older, European-looking man named Christian Zimmermann. He is a 55-year-old, German-born equestrian who has represented Palestine since 2012. He first rode on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in the World Equestrian Championships and other competitions, and in Rio he will make history as the first equestrian representing Palestine in the Olympic Games.
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How does a Christian from Cologne – who is a descendant of German composer Robert Schumann, who serves as CEO of a communications company that employs over 700, and who retired from competitive dressage 30 years ago and barely competed at all for many years – become a citizen of Palestine and its representative at the Olympics?
The explanations are quite diverse – and some of the questions have never been answered. What is clear is that Zimmermann did not marry a Palestinian and receive citizenship that way, as has been reported. His story is more complicated, and embodies a combination of ideology and opportunism.
Christian Bruhe, as he was known until 2012, developed a high level of expertise in dressage, an elite “art form” of equestrian sport, as well as studying business and collecting art (“I love beauty and excellence,” he says.) At age 26, he left competitive dressage and went into business, eventually joining the family firm his father had started, specializing in construction of booths at exhibitions. Despite disagreements with his father, the son subsequently turned the company, Uniplan, into a successful international communications company. It has offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Basel and Atlanta, along with five cities in Germany, including its headquarters in Cologne.
In 2006, Zimmermann – who believes that challenges are an important part of life – started competing again in dressage after a hiatus of 18 years. There are virtually no age limits for those engaging in equestrian sports; indeed, many of the oldest Olympic athletes over the years have been equestrians.
In September 2011, he still rode for Germany, under the name Bruhe, before deciding to represent Palestine. (By the way his daughter, Esther Bruhe, also competes in dressage.) In 2012 he married Sarah-Myriam Zimmermann and took her last name. She is not Palestinian either, as can be seen by her name.
It took until 2013 for him to change his national allegiance because of the rules of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (known by its French acronym, FEI). His choice of Palestine derived in part from his search for a way to qualify for the Olympics. As a German rider he was not particularly successful in making the cut, but as a Palestinian he has virtually no competition, which has enabled him to reach the Games, as the German tabloid Bild has suggested.
In addition to Zimmermann, only five other Palestinian equestrians are registered, along with two horses, as members of FEI, according to that organization. The PA holds no international equestrian competitions either, so the question still stands: Why Palestine, and not, for example, some small, undeveloped African nation?
Zimmermann explains that at a competition in which he participated at the end of the last decade, he met a family of Russian diplomats of Palestinian origin. That marked the beginning of a special friendship, which later led to his decision to represent Palestine. It was not a spontaneous decision, he adds; he took his time before deciding to ride for Palestine.
While he mentions the political aspect of this move, he also hints that there is also a practical dimension to it. Specifically, he notes, such decisions will naturally influence a person on a personal, sporting and political level. But pragmatically, he also realized he would have a great deal more freedom competing on behalf of Palestine than if he tried to fit into the German organizational structure.
Zimmermann says that while he has always been interested in politics and history, including those of the Middle East, his friendship with the family of diplomats introduced a more personal dimension, prompting him to make his move, despite the complex and special relationship between his homeland and Israel. For obvious reasons, he explains, Germans are often preoccupied with history and with the situation in Israel. On the other hand, the Palestinian predicament is not sufficiently represented in Germany; he hoped he could help encourage people to think, relate to and understand the Palestinian perspective in the Middle East conflict, “We, as Germans,” he says, “have a responsibility to both sides and we must have a proper perspective.”
Another part of the story is that since Zimmermann would never have qualified for the Games as a representative of Germany, he chose a diplomatic entity that has almost no equestrians. This is not a rare phenomenon; it happens in many sports – and has sparked a lot of criticism. Indeed, he was the subject of such criticism – before the 2012 London summer Olympics (Zimmermann planned to compete in it as a representative of Palestine, but could not do so since a cooling-off period was required after he rode for Germany) – on the part of Ricki Rothschild Bachar, of the Israel Equestrian Federation. In February 2012 she wrote about Zimmermann: “Do you think he knows where Palestine is? I don’t [think so].”
He certainly does know where it is, but the criticism continues – along the same lines as comments voiced against the Brazilian soccer player who became a Tunisian citizen to make the Olympic team, or the Jamaican athlete competing on behalf of Slovenia.
Many equestrian competitors and fans do not like what happened with the Olympic qualifying criteria for dressage in Rio. Even though the number of riders in individual dressage events will be 60, up from 50 in the 2012 Games, a number of the world’s best riders – for example, Goncalo Carvalho from Portugal – will not be in evidence. This is particularly problematic because many of the spots were allocated on a geographic basis, and not necessarily to the best equestrians. Thus, 40 dressage competitors won places on their national teams, while 14 of the remaining 20 were chosen on a geographic/continental basis, two from each region. All Zimmermann and his horse Aramis needed was to place among the top two of the 11 competitors from the Africa and Middle East region, while some of the finest European riders will be force to stay home and watch the events on television.
Zimmermann continues to serve as CEO of his company, and tries to strike a balance between work and riding. He trains four or five times a week, for three hours each time. He says he owes the fact that he can spend time on dressage to his employees. Without a successful organization or a reliable and professional managerial staff, he stresses, he could not have succeeded in fulfilling his Olympic dream. Nor could he do that without his Palestinian passport either, of course.
At the World Equestrian Games in 2014, Zimmermann came in 68th when competing for Palestine. In Rio he hopes to do better – and also to raise awareness of Palestine internationally. In addition to his sporting goals at the Games, it’s very important for him to contribute even a little in that way. “In my eyes,” he says, “this will be the real success.”