Putting Some Wind in Israel's Olympic Sails

Kiwi Jewish sailor Jo Qesem Ayela Aleh says part of her Olympic gold medal belongs to Israel, where her parents are citizens.

SYDNEY – A Jewish Olympic medalist recently told Haaretz, “…part of my medal belongs to Israel.”

These words may offer Israelis some solace as the post-mortem begins on what has been described as Israel’s “Olympic shame” in failing to win a single medal for the first time in 24 years.

No, these are not the words of America’s Aly Raisman, whose Hava Nagila-inspired gold medal in gymnastics seemed to raise Jewish spirits worldwide – most certainly those of Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who has already invited her to visit Israel later this year.

Nor were they uttered by Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, who dedicated his bronze medal after leading Russia to third place in basketball on Sunday “as a gift to everyone in Israel.”

No, these are the words of an Olympic gold medalist from the farthest reaches of the Diaspora, whose pathway to the podium can be traced back to Beersheva in 1998.

It was then that Jo Qesem Ayela Aleh, the New Zealand-born daughter of dual Israeli and Kiwi citizens Shuki Shukrun and Daniella Aleh, was celebrating her bat mitzvah in Israel’s southern city.

“We had a wonderful home-catered celebration at the home of one of her extended family there,” her mother said from London on Sunday. “When she gave a little speech she mentioned that one of her goals was to represent New Zealand at the Olympics. The support from her family was sufficient for her to purchase her first racing dinghy.”

Fast-forward 14 years.

Jo Aleh, together with her partner Olivia “Polly” Powrie, snatched victory last Friday from the claws of the Brits in a winner-takes-all gold medal race in the women’s 470 sailing regatta.

The new Olympic champion – whose father lives in Moshav Yinon, near Kiryat Malakhi, and whose mother served in the Israeli army – says she was amazed and slightly bemused at the media fanfare in Israel.

“It feels great to know that there is even more people behind me and given my parents’ background, part of my medal belongs to Israel,” she said.

Aleh’s half-sister Shefa is celebrating her bat mitzvah in a fortnight and her parents – who witnessed the triumph in England last week – are heading to Israel for the simcha.

Aleh, the 2007 world champion and now the 2012 Olympic champion, was also scheduled to go straight to Israel, but as one of five Kiwi gold medalists she is attending parades in Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday and earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday.

But Israel may still get to celebrate her gold.

“I am still hoping to make it back to Israel in time for my sister’s bat mitzvah,” she said. “I have been to Israel once a year for the past few years to visit my father and all of his family as well as some of my mother’s family who also live in Haifa.”

Aleh praised Israeli sailors Vered Bouskila and Gil Cohen who played a bit part in the Kiwis’ success. In one of the earlier races, the Israeli duo could have appealed for a penalty against the Kiwis, but chose not to.

“The Israeli crew were helpful to us, in that they did not want to spoil our chances of a medal for an incident that did not hinder them in any way,” Aleh said of the incident. “The foul could have gone either way. But they decided to be on our side and we really appreciate that.”

The final push for gold was more than just a matter of sailing. Not only did the Kiwis face Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, the current world champions, they were up against a partisan British crowd intoxicated by the nation's gold rush. Also, they had just lost an eight-point lead in the penultimate race. Aleh, though, was undaunted.

“The pressure was always going to be on the Brits to win gold in their home country,” Aleh said. “So I think it was probably harder for them than us.”

From the second she crossed the starting line, the Auckland-born skipper had the wind in her sails, figuratively if not physically given the near-still conditions in Weymouth that prompted officials to shorten the course midway through the race.

“It probably won’t sink in for a while but it’s pretty cool,” Aleh told the BBC moments after crossing the finishing line. “It’s pretty awesome to bring back a gold medal, because no New Zealand woman has ever won a medal in a sit-down boat. So I’m sitting down and we’ve got one now.”

Her mother was elated.

“Seeing the way her grin became so effortless and stayed on her face,” was an enduring moment, she said. “She’s very happy that all her preparations, training and discipline worked.”

Back in New Zealand it was after midnight as many in the country's small Jewish community – which numbers around 7,000 – celebrated a slice of their own history. Aleh is believed to be the first Jewish Kiwi – man or woman – to win an Olympic medal, let alone gold.

“I was not aware of this,” Aleh said. “I guess it’s a good bonus.”

Stephen Goodman, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, said, “The Jewish community is extremely proud of Jo and Polly’s Olympic success; this pride is both as New Zealanders and as Jews.”

Aleh was inspired to begin sailing by New Zealand’s victory in the America’s Cup in 1995, days shy of her ninth birthday.

“I was watching the Kiwis just smacking everyone on the world stage,” she said before the Olympics. “I liked the idea of that.”

Her mother recalled, “At that time we didn’t have a TV and she watched it at a friend’s place, with whom I was with in the Israeli army, along with her young son. Soon after that she asked her dad if she could learn to sail.”

Her father obliged, arranging for her to attend a sailing course. The rest, as they say, is history – history that now includes the name Jo Aleh.