BEIJING (JTA) – Clutching Israeli flags, the young Chinese students greeted the Israeli Olympic swimmers with shouts of “shalom” as the athletes visited their elementary school here this week.
The Shi Jia Primary School was assigned Israel as part of a citywide program of partnerships between schools and Olympic countries. In preparation, the school spent the past two years teaching the students about Israel and how to say “shalom.” It also had the students Skype with a school in Jerusalem.
“Many of our students wanted to ask their counterparts in Jerusalem about peace in their region,” said English teacher Fu Rui.
“I was very excited when I found out in 2006 that my school would be partnered with Israel; I was really pleased,” said principal Zhuo Li, who has been working at the school for 46 years. “Israel is famous around the world for technological and agricultural advancements. They have a small population but they have pushed themselves, also in terms of culture and education, with so many people going to school.”
Founded in 1939, the Shi Jia school is older than Israel, but this location was newly constructed in 2004 on the site of a temple-style house.
The school, which serves 2,000 students from third through sixth grades, is hidden inside a neighborhood maze of small alleyways.
As the Israeli contingent was taken on an hourlong tour of the highly rated school, the swimmers’ awe grew with each stop. The school features a recording studio and individual piano practice rooms, a large-capacity theater with a superior tech booth, solar panels and windmills, a dormitory for 300 to 400 students and an underground, mall-like parking garage.
For the Olympians – Itai Chammah, Guy Barnea, Tom Beera and Gal Nevo – the highlight clearly was the school’s first-class sports facilities. Descending into the gymnasium, which had more equipment than a Bally’s fitness center, the swimmers pulled out their cameras to take pictures and video of the children screaming during their fencing lesson.
Chammah, who won a heat in the 200-meter backstroke but failed to qualify for the final, asked Zhuo if he could attend Shi Jia.
“Only if you teach swimming,” the principal said with a laugh.
The swimmers were especially in their element at the pool, where the inescapable Beijing Olympic theme song was being pumped over the loudspeaker. A crowd of boys and girls shivered outside the pool for a photo-op before Israeli and Chinese media – the children looked a bit lackluster as they posed in their swimsuits.
When the Israeli Embassy spokesman, Guy Kivetz, told two boys what the Israeli swimmers’ names were in Chinese, the children’s faces lit up.
“We heard of them!” they cried.
The students began to loosen up, and the swimmers posed with them for another round of pictures where everyone flexed muscles and made funny faces.
Later the athletes answered questions for another group of students. One boy asked why they wanted to become swimmers.
“In my country it’s really hot all year-round,” Beeri replied, “so you only have two choices to cool off – either go into the air conditioning or go to the pool.”
The swimmers also advised the students to listen to their coaches, but not to any detractors who might tell them they should pursue other endeavors.
“All of us have been told before that our body type isn’t right or we should give up,” Chammah said. “You can’t listen to those people.
“My coach gave me this advice for competition: First you swim as fast as you can, then you slowly, slowly get faster.”
Unfortunately for Chammah and the other Israeli Olympians visiting the school – all of the Israeli swimming contingent, for that matter – they weren’t fast enough to reach any final. Synchronized swimmers also did not qualify for the finals.
Israel earned its first medal on Wednesday, with windsurfer Shahar Zubari winning the bronze. He came in second in the Men’s RS:X medal race to clinch an overall third place finish with 58 net points in Qingdao on Wednesday
Kayaker Michael Kolganov advanced to the medal race but lost in the semi-finals.
Israel still has competitors alive in rhythmic gymnastics, taekwondo and the men’s long jump.
In tennis, the singles’ and doubles’ performers were eliminated early. No shooter advanced and judokas entered repechage rounds without emerging with a bronze medal.
The Israeli athletes who finished competing had flown home by Tuesday with the exception of the synchronized swimmers, who were eliminated that day.
After the visit by the Olympians, Zhuo said, “We can learn a lot from the Olympics. Not just from the field of sports, but this can encourage cross-cultural communication. China can learn from the world, and the world can learn from China.”