Olympic Heights: Passing the baton at Beijing

It is harmony, and not winning, that should be at the center of the Games.

tzuberi wins 224 ch 1 (photo credit: Channel 1)
tzuberi wins 224 ch 1
(photo credit: Channel 1)
Even if you're not gaga about Gematria, you'll surely acknowledge that eight was the winning number at the gargantuan Games in Beijing. In Chinese culture, eight symbolizes good luck. It was no coincidence that the Games began on 8-8-08, and they will undoubtedly be remembered for the eight gold medals won by the phenomenal American swimmer, Michael Phelps - sometimes by the skin of his Speedo. In Judaism, though, seven is considered a more complete number, and has become associated with perfection. Which is how the seven medals of swimmer Mark Spitz, who is still the greatest Jewish Olympian of all time, have been viewed for the last 36 years. But the Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Swifter, Higher, Stronger), and the records are there to be broken. Spitz was ultimately gracious when he passed the baton on to Phelps. As the Games began, Agence France Presse quoted a bitter Spitz saying he had been snubbed by not being invited to Beijing. But when his 23-year-old compatriot bettered his feat by winning an eighth medal, Spitz, now 58, was generous enough to declare: "Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete ever." Facing Phelps later, on an NBC split screen, Spitz said: "I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time. The word that comes to mind: epic. What you did was epic." The adjective was reminiscent of Spitz's own legendary 1972 performance in Munich. The American swimmer did not have long to celebrate, though, because just a day after he won his seventh medal, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by Palestinian terrorists, and Spitz, because he was Jewish, was whisked home to the US. THE BEIJING Games got off to an ignominious start in the Water Cube, when Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei failed to show for the fourth heat of the 100-meter breaststroke, clearly because Israel's Tom Be'eri was taking part. (Be'eri, incidentally, set new Israeli records for both the 100 and 200 meters.) Not only did Iran's action spoil the Olympic spirit of world harmony, it contrasted sharply with a magical moment later on in the week when Russia's Natalia Paderina hugged Georgian rival Nino Salukvadze on the podium after they both won medals in women's shooting, and appealed for peace as their respective homelands were waging war. The highlight for Israel in Beijing finally came on Wednesday, when 22-year-old windsurfer Shahar (dawn) Zubari (that's how he spells his name, although it's pronounced Tsuberi) from Eilat won a bronze after several ups and downs. This, by the way, was Israel's seventh medal in the history of the Olympics. It blew wind into our national sails when Zubari was presented the medal by Alex Gilady, Israel's sole representative on the International Olympic Committee. Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took time out to telephone Zubari, and compliment him on his "cool demeanor." The scene rekindled warm memories of Athens four years ago - when windsurfer Gal (wave) Fridman won the country's first gold medal (which was later stolen and then retrieved). Jogging our collective memory a dozen years before that, it was in Barcelona that Israel rejoiced in its first medals, in judo. Yael Arad (bronze) celebrated first with a silver, while her male colleague, Oren (pine) Smadja, later got the bronze. Arad served as a commentator for Channel 1 in Beijing, which did a superb job of covering the Games, despite whining from the Israel Broadcasting Authority that it has no money. The local swimmer who tugged at our hearts (and made the most headlines at the beginning of the Games) was undoubtedly Alon (oak) Mandel. Although he did not make the finals, the 20-year-old Mandel broke two national records in the Beijing pool just days after the tragic death of his father and coach, Kostia Mandel, who fell from a ladder while putting up a banner in support of his son outside their Netanya home. "At the end of the swim, I raised my finger to the sky and pointed to my father," the marvelous Mandel, who will be a junior at the University of Michigan this fall, told the Post after finishing the 200-meter fly heat in 1:59.27 (a personal best, but almost six seconds slower than Phelps, who was swimming in a lane just a few meters away). Despite having its biggest contingent ever (42 athletes) since 1952 when it first participated in the Olympics, Israel did not fare well in Beijing, and some newspaper commentators were quick to blame everything and everybody, from a lack of funding and the way the athletes were chosen to their coaches and even Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle (who spent a whopping 18 days in Beijing). Jewish media, especially in the US, pointed out that two Jewish swimmers, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale (along with Cullen Jones), passed the baton to help Phelps make history in the pool on August 11, when the American team won the men's 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. Here in Israel, Haaretz ran a headline that read like the start of a racist joke: "Two Jews and a black man help Phelps fulfill dream." A Eurosport commentator sounded decidedly racist when he quipped at the opening ceremony that the Palestinian athletes trained while dodging Israeli bullets. But "Palestine," which has taken taken part in the Games since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, did not do too well in China either - and, of course, Israel was blamed. Its four athletes included two swimmers and two runners. Zakia Nassar, 21, who is from Bethlehem but studies dentistry in Jenin, complained after coming in 79th in the 50-meter heats that she couldn't train properly because she didn't have a permit to reach an Olympic-size pool in Israel. Sprinter Ghadir Ghurouf (dubbed "the Gazelle of Jericho" by Palestinian newspapers) came in 71st in the 100-meter heats in 13.07 seconds, which was fast enough to set a new Palestinian record. It was on the track that the lanky Jamaicans shone, with Usain "Lightning" Bolt, who turned 22 this week, nonchalantly finishing the 100 meters in a record 9.69 seconds, and the 200 in 19.3, breaking Michael Johnson's hallowed 1996 time. Bolt was the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 to sweep the 100 and 200 gold medals. President Shimon Peres, who at 85 was the oldest world leader to attend the opening ceremony, told the People's Daily in Beijing that he would have liked to have been a gymnast. Always the diplomatic gymnast, adeptly avoiding the politically sensitive issue of human rights in China, Peres recalled that his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, had advised "[looking] at China in a far-reaching way; it is a great nation and will be the world focus one day." Sounding like a modern-day Confucius, the president was quoted by the paper as saying: "The sky would not fall if you lost in the Games, but what is more important is that you never lose hope." In a poem he dedicated to the Games, Peres wrote: "Win, don't kill; Lose, don't hate; Hope, don't regret. Go home with an olive branch between your lips: together in harmony." Ultimately, the US and China hauled in the most medals in Beijing, and Israel came home with just one. But surely Peres, known for never giving up during a career of political defeats, is right: It is world harmony, and not winning, that should be at the center of the Games. If not losing hope is the baton that Peres passed on to Israel and its athletes, we should be proud that it was he who represented the country in Beijing.