CNN’s “Palestinian Swimmer” Story Sinks

CNN recently reported the sad tale of Palestinian Olympic hopeful Raad Aweisat, whose makeshift swimming pool and training facilities in his hometown are far less favorable than those he once enjoyed at Jerusalem’s YMCA, which boasts a half Olympic-sized swimming pool and modern weight-room. The culprit in the story, according to reporter John Vause’s clear implication, was Israel:

Three years ago before the start of the intifadah, Raad trained at the YMCA in West Jerusalem. But then, because he was Palestinian, he was given two choices. Either join the Israeli swim team or pay to use the pool. (CNN Sunday Morning, Jan. 11, 2004)

In fact the story is more complicated than that, and neither the YMCA nor Israel is at fault for Aweisat’s difficulties.

A YMCA official, who did not give permission for his name to be used, absolutely denied that the organization demanded Aweisat join the Israeli swim team, pointing out that, like all Y’s, the West Jerusalem YMCA is an independent organization which has no connections to any government including Israel. Simply put, Israel has no authority over the YMCA to exact fees on Palestinians.

Moreover, according to swimming and YMCA officials in Israel, the organization always cuts its fees to whatever is affordable for the would-be member. Serious young swimmers are also offered the opportunity to work at the YMCA to help pay swim-meet and travel fees.

So why does Raad Aweisat train in an improvised barely heated pool in his hometown? The answer seems to be pressure from his father, Hussein Aweisat, who is also the coach of young Aweisat’s swim team. According to the YMCA official, the elder Aweisat demanded special treatment for his swimmers and then didn’t wait for an answer before moving his team to the inadequate swimming pool in his home town. Since Mr. Aweisat’s rash action more than half of his team has returned to train at the YMCA, as could Raad Awisat if only the father would allow him to do so.

And even if Mr. Aweisat didn’t want to return his team to the West Jerusalem YMCA, there are alternatives besides his backyard swimming pool, including a different YMCA with a suitable pool in nearby, heavily Arab East Jerusalem.

But CNN’s Vause is apparently not one to let facts like these get in the way of a good story. And in this, sadly, he is joined by his colleagues at the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the London Times, which also misreported the story. Thus, in its January 10 story the Times inaccurately alleged that the young swimmer was told – the reporter didn’t say by whom – that he would have to join the Israeli Swimming Federation if he wanted to continue swimming at the Y, thus forcing him to train at home. And in stories on January 9th both the AP and the Washington Post explicitly claimed that this message came from YMCA officials. As the AP dispatch worded it:

Aweisat used to practice at the YMCA on the Jewish side of Jerusalem. But after Palestinian Israeli violence broke out more than three years ago, the YMCA told Awisat to either join the Israeli Swimming Federation, or find somewhere else to swim, according to his father.

It is notable that none of these stories feature any comment from YMCA or Israeli officials, nor even a refusal to comment. It seems that for Mr. Vause and his colleagues – Molly Moore at the Washington Post, Lara Sukhtian at the AP, and Ian MacKinnon at the Times of London – any Palestinian charge, no matter how outlandish, is worth reporting, but the facts are never worth checking.

The Editor-in-Chief of Sports Publications, Phillip Whitten, uncovered additional details about inaccuracies in the Raad Aweisat tale.

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