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A Sad Tale Of Division From Debrecen

May 21, 2012  - Craig Lord

Every swimming session at major championships brings great challenges that leave some smiling, others not. Few, if any, would have had as difficult a morning as Aleksander Hetland, 26th in the heats of the 100m breaststroke in 1:02.17 on the opening day of action at the European Championships in Debrecen. 

Just three weeks ago, he would have expected to be racing as Norway's No2 in a race for which teammate Alex Dale Oen would have entered as favourite. The passing of Dale Oen, a world champion in the midst of an Olympic campaign when he died during a training camp at Flagstaff, US, on the last day of April, left a great void in the world of swimming, the depth of loss for his family all the greater.

Sadness in the 100m breaststroke came too in different shape this morning in Debrecen.

Imri Ganiel, clocked 1:00.96 to lead the 100m breaststroke through to semis. Impressive for a man on a season best of 1:02.53 last year. Also through to semis, on 1:01.95, was teammate Gal Nevo, on a 2011 sea on best of 1:02.32. Their speed had much to do with a domestic challenge, Israel fielding two others in the heats at a championship that lets four per flag in the pool in the morning, only the best two into semis and finals in the evening sessions.

Teammate to the top two Israeli's this morning was Jowan Qupty, the only man disqualified in the heats this morning in Debrecen. Born in Jerusalem, the son of a lawyer from Nazareth who met his Tarshiha-born wife in Tel Aviv University, Qupty may have felt at ease with the latest adversity to cross his path given the experience he has had of late.

At 16, he left Israel to pursue his swimming career and raced at the Youth Maccabiah games - despite not being Jewish. Of late, he was on the opposite side of a court ruling to the Israel Swimming Association chaired by Noam Zvi. Now 22, he challenged a selection ruling at a federation tribunal, arguing that he was the fastest 100m breaststroke swimmer in his country at the start of the year, on a best of 1:02.43.

The tribunal ruled that Ganiel and Qupty would travel to Hungary, the fastest man the one who would end up in the medley relay. This morning's disqualification settled that argument but the wider issue will not go away.

"Everybody believes I'm a victim of racism, but I want to believe this isn't the case," Qupty told domestic media on the eve of racing. "I was caught in a political struggle. Zvi and my coach founded Hapoel Jerusalem, and then fell out. Zvi became the association's chairman and he helps Hapoel Jerusalem as much as he can. Whoever belongs to our team, 'Jerusalem United,' suffers because we're allegedly the opposition. I've heard similar stories before, so I'm not really that surprised." 

The federation rejects his accusation, a spokesperson for the ISA telling Haaretz: "Twenty four hours before the European Championships begin, the Israeli national team is focused on the success of the swimmers, mutual help and support. As a rule, Israeli swimmers are known for their ability to reach their peak while being humble and courteous.

"It is unfortunate that a swimmer, appearing in the national team for the first time, ignores all existing norms and degrades the national coach, who believed and still believes that a swimmer who did not set the personal criterion should not participate in the current championships. The national team is ready for its most important mission two months before the Olympics, and the heads of the delegation won't allow anyone to harm the preparations."

The harm will surely remain if the two sides cannot find harmony within their own camp. Qupty moved to the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and represented Israel in jus junior years. "I've been representing Israel since I was 14 and it always seemed the most natural thing to do," he says. "There will always be those who will want to add an asterisk, or ask 'why doesn't he represent Palestine?' but I'm fine with my decision."

Fluent in five languages - Arabic, Hebrew, English, Spanish and French - is now at the University of Missouri with coach Greg Rhodenbaugh and has deferred his studies to focus on his swimming and seek a place at London 2012 for Israel. 

The need for him to challenge in a tribunal his right to be in Hungary has not helped his preparations. Say Qupty: "The politics surrounding the Israel Swimming Association are unbelievable. Zvi has been elected to another four-year term by a 98-percent majority. Where else in the world could that happen? Everybody is afraid to vote against him, fearing his reprisal. He already targeted me, so what else can he do now? 

"The association claims it was a professional decision, but it obviously wasn't. They used every trick in the book to prevent me from attending the championships. I won't give up on the dream."

As of this morning, Qupty has a mountain to climb as the third fastest Israeli in the 100m breaststroke as things stand on paper.

Meanwhile, in first-day heats in Debrecen this morning, Stina Gardell (SWE) was the the sole sub 4:40 (4:39.48) swimmer in the 400m medley, Katinka Hosszu, 2009 world champion, in line to wow a home crowd with a 4:40.55 warm-up. In the other qualifier for finals today, Samuel Pizzetti (ITA) took lane 4 for this evening's 400m free challenge, his 3:49.65 the only sub-3:50 effort, world-championship bronze medallist Paul Biedermann (GER) next through on 3:50.43 two years after taking silver in the final behind Yannick Agnel (FRA), who bypassed Debrecen on the way to London 2012.

In other action, Alexianne Castel led the way through to the 200m backstroke semis in 2:10.04; Israeli pair Yakov Toumarkin and Guy Barnea led the way in the 100m backstroke on 545.22 and 54.44 respectively; Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) had the edge on 26.48 going through to 50 'fly semis; 

Fred Bousquet made the championships despite speculation that an injury in racing in Charlotte of late might keep him away. The French sprinter clocked 23.60 in the 50m butterfly 0.1sec ahead of Milorad Cavic (SRB), with Rafa Munoz (ESP) world record holder from 2009 (22.44) third through in 23.76.