DEBRECEN, Hungary (AP) — Israel just concluded its most successful European swimming championships, winning its first ever gold medal, plus four bronzes.
None of them was won by Jowan Qupty. Just being at the meet was his victory.
With dreams of becoming Israel’s first Arab swimmer at the Olympics, Qupty won a three-week dispute decided by a sports court to join the team in Hungary.
Qupty fought the Israeli swimming federation over breaststroke qualifying times and the entry of a squad for the medley relay.
“Honestly, I don’t want to think that it was because I’m an Arab,” Qupty told The Associated Press during last week’s meet. “Any other person would think, ‘OK, why else would they do that?’ But I don’t want to think that way, because I know there’s a lot of politics involved.”
Qupty did not achieve an individual qualifying time in any event, but when Israel decided to enter the relay, he argued that he deserved to be selected with the best time in the 100-meter breaststroke — 1 minute, 2.43 seconds.
When Imri Ganiel was chosen for the relay instead, with a time of 1:02.53, Qupty protested to the federation court. However, Ganiel had qualified for an individual event, the 50 breast.
“It’s the coach’s decision at that point,” federation president Noam Zvi said. “He could say, ‘I want someone below the time limit,’ but he didn’t do that for anyone.
“All swimmers are here with time limits. It doesn’t matter if they’re girl, boy, Arab, Jew, Christian, young, old. Only the time limit counts.”
But amid a frenzy of media coverage, the court ruled in favor of Qupty, whose parents both come from a Christian-Palestinian background.
“He came to the court and asked very much and they felt sorry for him so they said, ‘OK, you go.’ But the results were very clear,” Zvi said.
Qupty grew up in Jerusalem, then moved to the United States when he was 16 to swim at the elite Bolles school in Florida, before enrolling at the University of Missouri. His father is from Nazareth and his mother from Tarshiha, a town near the Lebanon border.
Another Israeli swimmer, Nimrod Shapira, is best friends with Qupty. The pair grew up swimming, and roomed at Bolles.
“We’ve known each other for 12 years at least,” Shapira said. “The important thing is that he’s here. He’s swimming and representing Israel. … It’s nothing to do with him being an Arab. It’s just coincidence.”
Israel’s Arabs make up about one-fifth of the population and occupy an uneasy place. They are citizens of a Jewish state who identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
Arabs in Israel are generally poorer, less educated and complain of discrimination. In recent years, Jewish and Arab politicians have used increasingly harsh rhetoric against each other, further polarizing relations.
Qupty is highly educated, though. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, English and French fluently — having gone to a French school in Jerusalem — and learned a bit of Spanish in Florida.
“Of course I feel a huge connection to my Palestinian roots,” he said. “There’s a big percentage of Palestinians — or Israeli Arabs — in Israel, and I also represent them. It’s an honor to represent a country and have everyone look up to you and be like, ‘OK, we want to be like him. If an Arab can do it let’s not give up.'”
Palestine has an Olympic team, but Qupty doesn’t have a Palestinian passport, and would have to take two years off to switch teams if he did acquire one, according to Olympic rules.
Qupty is not the first Arab swimmer to compete for Israel. Doaa Reda Masarwa competed in breaststroke at the 2009 worlds in Rome.
Arabs are also prominent in Israeli football, with Jimmy Turk having played for Israel at the 1976 Olympics. All football teams in the Israeli first division have at least one Arab player, except for Beitar Jerusalem, which is noted for its hostility toward Arabs. Arabs star for the Israeli national team and, this season, the league’s top two goalscorers are Arabs.
However, Qupty is not yet one of Israel’s top swimmers, and he likely won’t qualify for the London Olympics.
“It’s really slim right now,” he said.
Qupty failed to advance from heats in each of the three breaststroke events, with his best result 25th in the 200. He finished 47th in the 50 and was disqualified from the 100 heats for an illegal turn. Ganiel led the 100 heats, finished sixth in the 100 final and swam the breaststroke leg of the relay, in which Israel finished seventh.
“We’re friends,” Qupty said of Ganiel. “I wasn’t here to take his spot.”
“In the end,” Zvi said, “he was here. He got the chance. Maybe that’s what the court was saying. No one can say anything more, or that we didn’t take him.”
Qupty took a year off from university to focus on qualifying for London. He’ll return to Missouri for his final season, then focus on qualifying for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’m not giving up,” Qupty said. “There’s still 2016 and I’m going to train really hard for that and hopefully it will work out.”
Qupty lost several weeks of preparation during his fight with the federation but didn’t want to use it as an excuse.
“I could have overcome that,” he said. “I don’t know if it could have been better if I had a clear mind or not.”
Israel’s medalists included Jonatan Kopelev, who won the 50 backstroke — a non-Olympic event — two backstroke bronzes for Yakov Yan Toumarkin, plus bronzes for Guy Barnea and Amit Ivri. Also, Gal Nevo finished fourth in the 200 and 400 individual medleys.
“Israeli swimming is making enormous progress,” Zvi said.
Since joining the European swimming league in 1989, Israel had won a total of six medals at all previous Europeans.
“I didn’t think I would ever hear ‘Hatikva,'” Kopelev said, referring to the Israeli anthem. “It’s amazing.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
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