Judoka Zeevi hopes for final fling in London

After an unexpected victory at European championships, 35-year-old Ariel 'Arik' Zeevi is once again among Israel's best hopes for an Olympic medal.

Veteran Israeli judoka Ariel 'Arik' Zeevi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Veteran Israeli judoka Ariel 'Arik' Zeevi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Israeli judoka Ariel 'Arik' Zeevi plans to make the most of his final fling at the Olympics when he steps onto the mat at the London Games.
Zeevi was written off after flopping badly at the Beijing Games, but after an unexpected victory at the judo European championships in Russia in April the 35-year-old is once again among Israel's best hopes for an Olympic medal.
While there has been success for Israeli athletes on the water, sports commentators have dubbed Zeevi Israel's best male Olympian on land.
With a bronze medal from the 2004 Athens Games to go with his four European titles in the under 100kg category, Zeevi knows that his last chance to add to his medal haul will be at his fourth and final Olympics in London.
"I am No. 7 in the world, so there are six who are more favored than me to win a medal in London," Zeevi said.
"Before Athens I was one of the favorites ... so at that time I was under a lot of pressure. This time it will be easier for me to deal with the pressure."
Alongside windsurfing, Judo is Israel's most successful Olympic sport. Yael Arad was Israel's first medalist when she won silver in Barcelona in 1992, and Oren Smadja took bronze that same year.
The powerfully-built Zeevi is an intimidating presence on the mat, but off it he is a soft-spoken, friendly, intelligent family man. His priorities have clearly changed.
"I'm Arik Zeevi, I'm 35-years-old, I have two children, Noam and Amit and I'm married to Ravit, and I have been doing judo since I was seven years old," he said as he introduced himself.
The disappointment of Beijing prompted the media to say Zeevi was ready for the scrap heap but even if he fails in London he knows he has a life outside of judo.
"I was downcast and disappointed and everybody talked about my failure," he said. "But I think this time if I will fail it will be totally different.
"I am prepared for it, I have my two children and for me they are the most important thing in the world, so everything is put in proportion."
Zeevi: I feel stronger than in the past
Hampered by a persistent shoulder injury, Zeevi's best years seemed to be behind him after the 2008 failure and only the return to the top of the European podium convinced him he had one more Olympics left in him.
"I feel stronger than in the past, even my conditioning is better than in the past, but it takes longer to recover from an injury and after hard training it takes longer to be prepared for the next session. On the day of competition I need more time to warm up," he explained.
"I will never be 100 percent fit, after the operation on the shoulder it'll never be the same ... but now my technique is not based on moves involving my right hand, so I have had to find a way to cancel out my disadvantages," Zeevi said.
Coach Shani Hershko said Zeevi's experience compensated for his age.
"He is one of the oldest competitors ... very experienced and has done a lot of good things," Hershko said.
"We are working very hard for him to be in the best shape in London and to know all his opponents ... but there are 10 others that can win the gold medal, although we want to make it a special day in which he will go all the way to the end."
Zeevi said winning the European title after an eight-year gap, he previously won the title in 2001, 2003 and 2004, had given him new motivation after a long, lean spell.
"I think the best thing that happened to me after the Europeans is that I regained my confidence," he said. "I feel better and more confident for the Olympic Games but in the last two-three years as I was losing many times and because of the injuries, the confidence waned."
He said the Olympics would be a very open competition but that experience would play a major part.
"I'm sure there are some opponents that I have beaten three or four times so they know that they don't handle me well, but if I'm thinking about the top 10 in the world ranking list, everybody is experienced and everybody knows that anything can happen in one competition," he said.
The family man remains a fierce competitor and winning will still be the aim on the day of competition on Aug. 2.
"I will come to do my best, I can beat anybody, I know that, and I can lose also to many opponents, but with good confidence that everything will connect on the day I can win a medal in London," he said.