Cooler runnings?

An intrepid few are working toward putting together Israel’s first Olympic bobsled team in time for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.

March 3, 2010 21:06
AT THE Whistler bobsled track. With a little luck

vancouver feature 311. (photo credit: Courtesy Roy Grinshpan, Vancouver Magen David Adom)

VANCOUVER – With a last few shouts of encouragement from their coach and the surrounding crowd, the two large men grabbed their sleek green bobsled and raced alongside it, jumping in as it gained momentum and started to zoom along the ice.

The enthusiasm of the onlookers suddenly evaporated, though, as the Australian team flipped sideways and skidded along the track. The rest of their minute-long run was spent hurtling down helplessly on their side and, at one particularly hairy juncture, practically upside-down, the apparent consequence of the driver’s failure to enter the speeding sled correctly.

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Thus was the scene that welcomed two of Israel’s bobsled hopefuls to their first live view of the sport of 150-kilometer-per-hour twists and turns, as they stood with their faces pressed against the glass at the Olympic starting gate last week. It hardly seemed an auspicious beginning.

But Omer Segoly and David Dotan weren’t fazed.

“It’s very exciting,” Segoly, 23, said immediately after watching the Australian implosion. “It’s cool that after a crash like that, they’re still getting up and walking away. It makes me feel more comfortable.”

Dotan, 18, admitted to some apprehension – but not much.

“It makes me a bit nervous,” he acknowledged, “but I want to do it more.” As he explained, “It seems fun and this is supposed to be the hardest track in the world,” so others would presumably be less dangerous.

Their reactions were great news for Omri Geva, 22, who’s trying to put together an Israeli bobsled team to compete in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Segoly and Dotan are potential recruits, and he wanted to give them a sense of the thrill – and danger – of the sport in its prime-time glory, before beginning a grueling training regimen with them later this winter. He particularly hoped they’d see a bobsled crash so they would know what they were getting into.

Geva himself has already been training for skeleton, a head-first variation of luge that uses the same track as the bobsled. Though he underwent Team USA training in 2007 that saw him earn 17th place nationally, he quit to focus on representing Israel as part of the bobsled team he hopes to assemble.

“I really, really want to represent Israel. My heart was set on it,” he said of what he termed an easy decision to leave the American program. “I was so excited about representing Israel, I just had no desire to represent any other country.”

And Geva, who expects to focus more time on training once he finishes up a degree in Middle East politics at Brandeis University, wanted to represent Israel as part of a team. That way, when the race begins, “it isn’t, ‘The track is clear for Omri Geva,’” as it would be in the solitary sport of skeleton. “It’s, ‘The track is clear for Israel 1.’”

But as eager as he is to compete for Israel, it’s not clear the feeling is mutual.

THIS IS NOT the first time that Israeli bobsledding enthusiasts have attempted to represent the country in the Olympic Games. Geva is following in the footsteps of another team that competed half a decade ago. After reaching the world championships, they never took the last step to try to participate in the 2006 Olympics because even if their results had been good enough to qualify, the Olympic Committee of Israel hadn’t set out the domestic standards for qualification. In the absence of such standards, no athlete can participate. The team was loath to make the effort to qualify internationally only to have Israel’s own Olympic Committee essentially prevent them from going to the Games.

“It certainly was disappointing, because it was one of the most exciting experiences in my life,” said David Greaves, part of the original team, of “representing Israel and [being] an ambassador for Israel in a unique way.”

Greaves has strongly supported Geva’s attempt to rejuvenate the program. But at this point, according to Greaves, the OCI still hasn’t established the necessary domestic qualification.

In response to questions on the subject, a spokeswoman for the OCI told The Jerusalem Post that the bobsledders would need to start competing before standards could be set up, without addressing whether the OCI supported the idea of Israelis competing in the Olympics in bobsled. But one key Israeli figure in winter sports who Geva approached during his stay in Vancouver evinced skepticism and hesitation about the undertaking.

Stanley Rubenstein, chairman of the Israel Ski Federation, pointed out that Israelis don’t know bobsledding and put a low priority on most winter sports. “They know judo,” he told them, referring to the sport that won Israel its first Olympic medal, at the 1992 summer games. He also cautioned them that it’s no trivial matter to compete in bobsled at the international level.

Geva emphasized that he was under no illusions about how difficult it would be, telling Rubenstein that he was taking the enterprise seriously and intended to put together a serious team.

“We’re going to have be work very hard and be incredibly dedicated,” he later said.

That begins with relocating to Lake Placid, New York – where one of the US’s few bobsled facilities is situated – for large chunks of the winter and putting on significant amounts of muscle. Though Dotan and Segoly both top six feet (183 cm.), Geva is only 5’9” (175 cm.) and 184 pounds (83 kg.) – though he’s already worked himself to just 25 pounds short of his lifting goal of 500 pounds (226 kg.) thanks to three-hour-a-day workouts.

“I’d rather that we go to the Olympics because we’re competitive, not just because we come from a small nation,” Geva said, underscoring that he has no intention of reprising the experience of the Jamaican bobsled team that won a great deal of press attention – and a Hollywood film – but did poorly on the track.

“They’re afraid it will be like Cool Runnings,” he said, referring to the movie about the Jamaican team, which ends with them failing to complete the Olympic course. “They’re afraid it will be the same story with the Israeli bobsled team – that it will be a media joke.”

EVEN WITH Israeli sanction, though, the team has another major challenge in the way of funding. Now that Geva no longer trains for America, he has to pay for every run himself – which can cost $20 to $200, depending. He estimated the cost of practice runs, coaching, travel and other expenses at an annual $100,000. That doesn’t include the $100,000 price tag for the two-man bobsled itself. (All the figures go up for a four-man team.)

But he already has one backer on board handling marketing and fund-raising, the president of the Vancouver Magen David Adom Roy Grinshpan. In fact, Grinshpan was the indirect conduit for connecting Geva with Dotan and Segoly, as they all met at a Magen David Adom fund-raiser Grinshpan organized ahead of the Olympics with Greaves as the featured speaker.

Dotan and Segoly, inspired by the latter’s experience – which provoked laughter and tears from the audience – connected with Geva as they waited to talk to Greaves after his address. (Segoly, like Geva, was born and spent much of his childhood in Israel, while Dotan has Israeli parents; both now live outside Vancouver, where the MDA event was held. Geva joked that he was delighted when they approached him because “I’ve been looking for strong Jews, and unfortunately there aren’t a lot of us.”)

Greaves, for his part, has been impressed by Geva’s efforts and is trying to help him get a racing team on the track. During the event, he spoke to several members of Israel’s Olympic Committee who were in attendance and was very encouraged by the reception he received.

“We are in such a good place right now,” he said, though he added, “nothing is for sure.”

Grinshpan is convinced that this time Israeli bobsledders will make it to the Olympic Games.

“Israel was founded out of the desert and swamp, and that was the impossible dream. Now it’s our turn,” he declared, saying this time the ecological challenge has changed from sand to snow. “They’re going to make it possible.”

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