‘I Still Owe Israel My Entire Existence:’ Jewish Olympian AJ Edelman on Representing Country, Arab Teammates, Giving Back
The Israeli bobsled team led by Jewish Olympian A.J. Edelman and his Israeli Arab teammates are vying for a chance to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics, a lofty ambition for a sun-drenched country that has never medaled in those games.
But for Edelman and his fellow athletes, the quest is about much more than a prize podium: it’s a chance to represent the nation they share together, and to give back to the next generation of Israeli hopefuls.
“The Olympics are not the goal,” Edelman, 29, told The Algemeiner on Wednesday from South Korea, where the team is training at the Olympic Sliding Center in Pyeongchang. “We have no relevance other than the fact that we wear the Israeli flag…and so because of that, it’s an honor unparalleled that you can never repay.”
Edelman’s squad is one of Israel’s two bobsled teams hoping for a spot in next year’s Olympic Games, which will take place in Beijing, China. The athlete, who is originally from Boston but made aliyah in 2016, retired from competitive sporting after racing in the 2018 Olympic contest in skeleton, which features a smaller sled. A former ice hockey goalie and speed skater, he was Israel’s first ever Olympic athlete in that sport, but retired from athletics after experiencing what he called a “disturbing” episode related to a helmet disqualification at the 2018 Games, and receiving emotional abuse from other athletes.
Turning to business, Edelman was accepted into the Yale School of Management, hoping to pursue an MBA. But he was soon back on the ice, this time as a bobsledder — because, as he put it, “I still owe Israel my entire existence and identity.”
He had his first exposure to bobsledding in 2014 as a breakman, responsible for stopping the sled, and was a bobsled driver in 2019. Edelman recruited his Druze teammates Moran Nijem and cousins Amir Fawarsy and Ward Fawarsy, who all play for Israel’s national rugby team. As bobsledders, they must run alongside the four-person carriage, pushing it to achieve maximum speed. When it builds momentum down a narrow, iced track, the riders jump in — Edelman the driver in front, followed by the brakeman in back.
As a diverse team representing the same flag, they have become an example of Arabs and Jews working closely to make their country and communities proud.
“One thing that I’ve always been very, very insistent on is that no one gets in my sled if the Games are the goal,” he said. “The number one thing that I ask any person who has expressed any interest in getting in a sled is ‘Would you do this for any other country and what’s your motivation?’ And anyone who says, ‘if presented the opportunity, I would sled for [any country other than Israel],’ then they’re not for this team. It’s not the right mindset. Israel has to be the first and only choice.”
Nijem and the Fawarsy cousins told The Algemeiner Thursday that they want to establish a school for potential Druze athletes of all sports, and hope their run in the Olympics will make it possible.
“Sport builds character, can be a career, can make you travel the world, and that’s more important than making money,” said Amir, 24. “We want people to do sports especially in our village and community, where things are now heading to a bad place. A lot of problems are happening in our community, and to me sports was always the solution. It kept us out of the problems. We need sports in our community.”
Edelman said his teammates’ vision resonated with his own. “My entire 2018 Olympic run was essentially that for Israel and Jews abroad,” he said. “They believe and I believe firmly that when they made the Games, it will provide them an opportunity to establish that kind of institution; to get that change done in their community. That for me has always been my driving force representing Israel.”
“The reason I’m back is because I think if not for me, then who else?” he said about his return to representing Israel in the sport. “If you believe that you’re the only person who is able to do what you want to do, to be a force for good, then you’re obligated to do so. It’s certainly an Israeli concept that if you have the power to overcome and do something positive, then you have to absolutely do that. For them, they’re doing it for their community and being a driving force for good. I’m just trying to do the same, to give back.”
The team met only recently, but said they already trust each other immensely — crucial in a high-speed sport with little room for error, and which can result in severe brain injury. “We really trust AJ. We believe in him and he also believes in us,” said Amir. “We believe we can make it and we’ll do our best every single day and train hard.”
Nijem and the Fawarsys knew nothing about bobsledding prior to meeting Edelman, and deferred their education to fly out of Israel during the coronavirus pandemic and train with Edelman in South Korea. Though races last a matter of minutes, Amir told The Algemeiner that the full-day of training is extremely “challenging,” leaving them completely “exhausted” even after a short run on the slide.
The Druze athletes haven’t seen snow in some 13 years, and adapting to the weather of 22-degrees below freezing in South Korea has been a challenge.
“Being an athlete, you always think about the country you’re representing,” Amir said. “You are not thinking about yourself. Every action you do, you have to think that you are here representing your country.”
Edelman has already spent about $70,000 of his own money to support his bobsled team — including paying for a coach, equipment and food costs — after an investor has failed to pay a promised $5 million. The team is crowdfunding money from supporters on GoFundMe, and Edelman is even trying to auction off his own Olympic ring on Ebay for additional funds. He said the team is practically living off of barley and eggs: “not the best diet for an athlete,” he admitted.
David Greaves, the president and co-founder of Bobsleigh Skeleton Israel, which is affiliated with the National Olympic Committee of Israel, said about Edelman, “He is an incredibly driven, exceptional person. If I was to bet on his success, I would have to bet in favor of him…it’s going to be a pretty exciting ride.”
Edelman explained, “I believe that everyone has a few reasons for being put here [on Earth] and my tavkid [duty] for now is helping Israel as much as I can through sport. We have an obligation not to walk away from Israel after getting to a supposed goal. I think a lot of Olympic athletes do that and it’s such a shame, because it’s a misuse of the honor and privilege that the country gave you.”
The team will find out if they qualifies for next year’s Olympic Winter Games in January 2022, based on a number of races beginning in October.