A week into the 2006 Winter Olympics, Israelis finally begin their quest for a medal when the figure skating ice dance competition opens Friday at Turin's Palavela rink.
Israel's two ice dance teams, Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky and brother-sister duo Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, will compete in the compulsory dance, Ravensburger Waltz, which is the first of three programs. All 24 competing teams will perform an identical dance routine. The Zaretskys were drawn to skate last in the third of five groups, while Chait and Sakhnovsky will be the third duo to skate in the final group of the evening.
Although Chait and Sakhnovsky are considered one of the best ice dance teams in the world, they have not set a specific goal for the Games. "We want to skate our best," said Galit. "I hope to skate well and give our best performance here in this competition."
"We don't skate for a medal," Sergei agreed. "We are athletes but also art people. We skate for art. It's not that we don't want to win a medal, we'll do everything for that, but we want people to like us."
They are not the only ones who would like to win a medal; many fans hope that Israel's top team will finally reach the medal stand. But at this Olympic competition, the battle for the top places is even harder. The gold medal almost seems in the bag for the Russian world champions, Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov. From the silver medal down, the field is wide open. The hot names for a medal are American youngsters Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who were the world silver medalists last year, but jumped on the American plane to Turin practically at the last moment, when Canadian Belbin was granted American citizenship on December 31, a day after US president George W. Bush signed a bill that allowed her to become an American.
The Bulgarian team of Albena Denkova and Maxim Stavyisky, Ukrainians Elena Grushina and Ruslan Guncharov, and Canada's top duo, Marie-France Dubruil and Patrice Lauzon, are all in the hunt, with the French team of Isabel Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder holding on to an outside chance.
And if that wasn't enough, two retired teams returned to competitive skating this year and will have their shot at a medal: Lithuanians Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who won a bronze at the European Figure Skating Championships a few weeks ago in Lyon, France; and the local favorites, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalists, Italy's own Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio.
While Chait and Sakhnovsky will try to finish in the top 10, the 18- and 22-year-old Zaretskys have a different battle at the bottom of the list. The sport builds on experience (with the exception of Belbin and Agosto), and the younger teams at the Olympics are there more for exposure and less for the final standings.
"All we expect from ourselves is to perform well," says Roman. "We want to present ourselves in a good way. It's about getting the experience and learning."
"We would like to be in the top 10, top three," smiles Alexandra, "but not this time. Maybe the next Olympics."
In the second program, the original dance, on Sunday, the teams choose their own music, but they must perform to Latin rhythms from a pre-determined list.
The third and final program, the free dance, is on Monday. While the Zaretskys will skate to Caravan, a famous jazzy piece, Chait's and Sakhnovksy's choice of music caused waves this season. They picked Ravel's Bolero, a piece of music that in many minds is identified with the legendary performance of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
"It was my dream to skate to Bolero," Sergei said, explaining the risky decision. "Because of Torvill and Dean, we had to wait with that, until people don't remember it as much. We're not repeating what they did, we have different ideas for it. We actually tried other musical choices as well, but when we skated to this one, our coach said, 'This is it.'"
AP contributed to this report.