By: Fern Sidman
The quintessential New England town of Needham, Massachusetts will be immeasurably transformed as its euphoric residents prepare to welcome home their very own “prodigal daughter;” three time Olympic medalist, gymnast Alexandra “Aly” Raisman. The vivacious 18-year old captain of the 2012 United States women’s gymnastic team captured the world’s adoration as she led her team to the gold for the first time since 1996. As to individual events, Raisman’s stellar performances garnered her both a bronze medal in the balance beam and yet another gold medal for the floor exercise routine in which she gracefully moved to the strains of “Hava Nagila.”
“I am Jewish, that’s why I wanted that floor music,” Raisman said. “I wanted something the crowd could clap to, especially being here in London. It makes it even much more if the audience is going through everything with you. That was really cool and fun to hear the audience clapping,” she added.
Stunning the world by winning the gold medal in the 4×100 meter event by defeating the Americans, the men’s French freestyle swimming relay team had yet another surprise in store for their global audience. An Olympic sports arena may be an unusual venue in which to honor the legacy of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but that’s exactly what occurred when Fabien Gilot, a member of the team, raised his arm in victory to reveal a moving tribute in Hebrew. Tattooed on his well toned limb were the words, “I am nothing without them;” a reference not only to the six million who perished at the hands of Hitler, but to a man named Max Goldschmidt; a man who had been a Jewish grandfather figure to Gilot. Having grown up in Germany, Goldschmidt survived the Auschwitz death camp and moved to France after the war where he met Gilot’s grandmother. Despite not being his biological grandfather, Goldschmidt played a pivotal role in Gilot’s life and served as an inspiration to him. Earlier this year, Goldschmidt passed away.
As will be recalled, prior to the commencement of the 30th Olympiad, a campaign had been waged to exhort the International Olympic Committee to accord a moment of silence in honor of the memory of the eleven Israeli athletes who were murdered at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich by the Palestinian terrorist group, “Black September.” Despite the international outcry for remembrance, the International Olympic Committee doggedly refused to grant such a request, but that didn’t deter certain athletes from making their sentiments known.
In an emotional gesture, the Italian delegation to the 2012 London Olympiad held a moment of silence for the 11 victims of the 1972 Munich massacre outside of the Israeli living quarters in the Olympic village. Joining them were a number of Israeli representatives including Zvi Varshaviak, chairman of the Olympic Committee of Israel; Efraim Zinger, head of the Olympic delegation; shooter Sergey Richter on behalf of the athletes; and Guy Strik on behalf of the coaches. Numbering over 30 members, the Italian delegation was headed by Sports Minister Piero Gnudi, Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Petrucci and International Olympic Committee member Franco Carraro.
Varshaviak said the gesture was beautiful and moving. “It’s a brave sign of solidarity and friendship between the Olympic family of Italy and that of Israel, which has continued for many years,” he said. Zinger thanked the Italians and explained to them that his committee is doing everything to memorialize the 11 Munich victims as Israelis. However, he said, it is important to remember that they were also Olympic athletes, coaches and judges who were murdered during the Olympics. “Therefore they are children of the Olympic movement and in our opinion it is the moral obligation of the International Olympic Committee to find a suitable way to perpetuate their memory,” Zinger added.
Adding her voice to the chorus of those who seek to acknowledge and honor the victims of the 1972 Olympic massacre was the US Women’s gymnastics team captain, Aly Raisman, who spoke with reporters after winning her gold medal in the floor exercise event. “The fact it was on the 40th anniversary is special, and winning the gold today means a lot to me. If there had been a moment’s silence, I would have supported it and respected it,” she said. Speaking of Raisman’s connection to her Jewish faith, Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, where the Raisman family are members, said of Aly, “She’s very proud and upfront about being Jewish. Neither she nor her family explicitly sought to send a message. But it shows how very integrated her Jewish heritage is in everything that she does.”
Prior to the start of the Olympics however, the reality of geo-political tensions reared its ugly head when the Lebanese Judo team refused to practice next to the Israeli team at the gym at London’s ExCeL center during final preparations. Olympic organizers accepted the Lebanese coach’s demand that the teams be separated and a makeshift barrier was erected to split their gym into two halves. Even when Middle Eastern nations have competed against Israel, the match hasn’t always been friendly. Last February, for example, Egyptian Judoka Ramadan Darwish was called a “national hero” after refusing to shake his Israeli rival’s hand after defeating Arik Zeevi in competition. Instead, Darwish yelled “Allahu Akbar” and walked away. Because of the boycott pressures, Israeli athletes usually compete in European circuits, rather than regional ones.
Although no medals were won by the Israeli Olympic team in London, the tennis duo of Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram (who have been representing Israel on the tennis court for more than a decade) did succeed in upsetting Roger Federer and Stanislaw Wawrinca of Switzerland, the 2008 gold medalists in men’s doubles. The Israelis beat the Swiss pair, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, in the second round and advanced to the quarterfinals, where they were eventually defeated by the top-seeded duo; brothers Mike and Bob Bryan of the United States. Erlich and Ram’s most significant victory came in 2008, when they won the Australian Open. They also own Davis Cup wins in 2009 over Russia, in 2007 over Luxembourg and Italy, and in 2006 over Great Britain.