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Making Aliyah for the Olympics

Why American-born athletes Donald Sanford and Jillian Schwartz are competing for Israel’s team in London

Stephanie Butnick
August 01, 2012
Donald Sanford in the men's 400-meter semifinals of the 21st European Athletics Championships on June 28, 2012, in Helsinki, Finland; Jillian Schwartz in the women's pole-vault final at the same competition on June 30, 2012.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Donald Sanford in the men's 400-meter semifinals of the 21st European Athletics Championships on June 28, 2012, in Helsinki, Finland; Jillian Schwartz in the women's pole-vault final at the same competition on June 30, 2012.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Ian Walton/Getty Images)

On Saturday morning, Illinois-native Jillian Schwartz and Los Angelino Donald Sanford will put on their uniforms and take the Olympic stage in London where they will compete in the qualifying rounds for pole vault and 400-meter dash, respectively. But the two former U.S. citizens won’t be wearing red, white, and blue. They’ll be competing for Israel, as the only American-born members of the Jewish state’s Olympic team.

Of the 37 Olympians representing Israel at this year’s games, only 20 were born in Israel. Thirteen were born in the former Soviet Union; tennis player Andy Ram moved to Jerusalem at age 5 from Uruguay, where he was born to an Israeli father and Uruguayan mother; Ethiopian marathoner Zohar Zemiro emigrated to Israel at age 10 in a 1987 airlift. But Schwartz and Sanford, who both competed at the highest levels in the United States, only became Israeli citizens since the last Olympic cycle.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of what’s been dubbed “Olympic Citizenship”: athletes switching nationalities in order to compete for a country other than the one they were born in. Pre-Olympic attention this year focused on “plastic Brits”—the 60 athletes (of 542) competing for host team Great Britain who were born elsewhere, the majority of whom only recently secured British passports. According to the Olympic Charter, this practice is acceptable, so long as athletes have lived in the country for which they are competing for at least three years. But many see it as a cynical trend that undermines the integrity of the games.

For athletes like Schwartz and Sanford, however, the ability to compete for Israel has given them the opportunity to be big fishes in a smaller pond. “People know who I am,” Schwartz explained. “The country is totally supportive of us.”


Jillian Schwartz has been running competitively since she was 13, first on her high-school team and then in college. Now 32, she took up pole vaulting while attending Duke University on an athletic scholarship for track and field and never looked back, even marrying a fellow Duke pole vaulter, Seth Benson, in 2008. An economics major, Schwartz set records for both indoor and outdoor pole vaulting and won the school’s first women’s Eastern College Athletic Conference title before graduating in 2001.

She represented the United States in the 2004 Olympics but had a disappointing performance in Athens, finishing 17th in the first round. After she fell short of qualifying for the 2008 Games in Beijing, Schwartz set her sights elsewhere, accepting an invitation to the 2009 Maccabiah Games, where she won a gold medal. While she was there, she was approached by Israeli athletic officials about the possibility of moving there. “I really did feel a strong connection that I didn’t expect,” she said, and so she agreed to make the move.

Since Schwartz was Jewish, the immigration process was routine: “It was a pretty quick process,” she told me. “Within a few weeks I was able to head over there.” Schwartz became an Israeli national at the end of 2009. While it was definitely easier to qualify for the Israeli Olympic team, she says that wasn’t what guided her decision-making. “I didn’t look at it like that,” she explained. “I would have had a good shot of making the U.S. team.” She sees the move less about this year’s Olympics and more about the bigger picture of her career.

Schwartz, who is the Israeli team’s only female track-and-field representative, will face opponents as young as 19 on Saturday. “I’m definitely one of the older ones,” she said, but added that she has no plans to stop pole-vaulting any time soon.

Unlike Schwartz, 25-year-old track star Donald Sanford isn’t Jewish—but his connection to Israel has deep roots. While attending Central Arizona College, the sprinter began dating basketball player Danielle Dekel, an Israeli who grew up on the Ein Shemer kibbutz. Sanford later transferred to Arizona State, where he began running 400 meters, the event that he will compete in this weekend. Sanford and Dekel married in 2008, and he began his citizenship process in 2010. Schwartz and Sanford, both former U.S. citizens, have grown close this summer as they prepared for the London Games. “He’s an awesome guy,” Schwartz said. “He feels great pride in competing for Israel.”

Barry Spielman, communications director for the Jewish Agency for Israel in North America, which coordinates Jewish immigration to Israel, says that the process is pretty straightforward as long as you can prove eligibility under the Law of Return. That could mean having a Jewish grandparent, a Jewish spouse, or Jewish parents. Both Schwartz, who was raised Jewish, and Sanford, who is married to an Israeli, qualify for Israeli citizenship under these regulations. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you need to go through the immigration process,” he said.

But Sanford, who peppers his speech with Hebrew words and spends the time he’s in Israel living near his wife’s family, had more difficulty securing citizenship as a non-Jew. “His process was different,” Schwartz explained, “and much longer.”

Sanford was only approved by the International Association of Athletics Federation to represent Israel in March. He became the 37th member of Israel’s Olympic squad (and the second ASU alum; Israeli-born swimmer Gal Nevo was also a Sun Devil) earlier this month after his impressive fourth-place finish at the European Championship in Helsinki swayed the Israeli Olympic Committee to approve his entry into the Games. He joins Schwartz and Zemiro, the Ethiopian-born runner, as Israel’s track-and-field representatives.


The U.S. Olympic team has included foreign-born medal-winning competitors since 2000, and just before the 2008 Beijing Games the number of American Olympic representatives who originally hailed from other countries was up to 50. Many of those athletes were granted expedited citizenship in the run-up to Olympic seasons using the EB1 visa, which is designated for priority workers “of extraordinary ability in the arts, science, education, business, or athletics.”

But that doesn’t mean the citizen-swapping trend is without criticism. Earlier this spring, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge addressed the issue, telling the BBC that while athletes often change nationalities for legitimate reasons, there are also those athletes who “go to another country because there is a bigger gain to be made. Legally we cannot stop this, but it does not mean we love it.”

Whether or not the IOC loves this practice, it is likely to continue as long as the Olympic stakes are high and the competition and prestige unmatched. In Israel, where all Jews are guaranteed the right to citizenship, the incentive for Jewish athletes to try for a spot on the Israeli Olympic team is even greater. And it doesn’t sound half bad. “It feels like a close-knit family,” Schwartz said. “It’s a small team, they really care about us.” Even when she’s in the United States, where she spends the bulk of her time, the Israeli team checks in with her and keeps track of her progress. “It’s a lot different than competing for the U.S.”


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Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.