Beijing Challenge (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Sports fans used to joke that the Olympic closing ceremony had to wait until the Israeli marathon runner crossed the finish line. But it was no joke that the fans had to wait 40 years, from Israel's first competition in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 until judoka Yael Arad won the country's first medal, a silver, in Barcelona, in 1992. Since then, Israelis have won medals at each of the subsequent Olympics: (see table on page 37) two more bronzes in judo, another in canoeing and a first gold in Athens four years ago when Gal Fridman won the men's windsurfing event, adding to the bronze he brought home from the 1996 Atlanta games. This summer, Israel is sending a team of 42 (22 men, 20 women) in 12 sports, its largest ever, to Beijing, and although there is no single clear-cut medal prospect, the general level is as high as it has ever been, and some individuals may challenge the world leaders against whom they are competing. Sports have never been high in Israel's national order of priorities, with wars and economic crises and a severe lack of a sporting heritage - notwithstanding a vague Zionist aim of creating a new, strong Jew. Investment in training and infrastructure was and still is minimal, especially where it is most important - at the school level. Attempts to improve Israel's international results in Olympic sports got underway in earnest in 1984, when the government's Sports Authority and the Israel Olympic Committee established the Elite Sports Unit (ESU), charged with raising the standard of results by concentrating all the resources on honing the skills of the few whom they identified as being able to deliver the best results. One of the things the ESU did was to set benchmarks above the minimum qualifying standard demanded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in many of the events in order for athletes to gain the right to participate in the Games. "We will be satisfied with one or two medals. Any more than that would be a bonus," says ESU head Gili Lustig, a former handball player and coach who heads the ESU. "We will have been successful also if we get eight competitors in the finals of their respective events," he adds. The team for Beijing will be the best Israel has ever prepared, with expenditure on training the costliest ever, Lustig says. "It is difficult to quantify just how much money was spent on each athlete, but it would be fair to say that each individual has received more assistance than ever before." One of the striking things about the Beijing team is that Athens gold medalist Fridman did not make it, having failed to adapt to the new wind-surfboard introduced to replace the model previously used. Shahar Tzuberi, who met the ESU criteria using the new model, takes his place. Tzuberi has had consistently good results with the new board, winning the bronze at this year's world championships and finishing seventh last year. It's a different story for another medal winner at Athens, heavyweight judoka Arik Ze'evi, who won the bronze medal in the men's under-100-kilogram class in 2004. Now one of the veterans among the world's top judokas, Ze'evi has vowed to make up in Beijing for not keeping his promise to bring home the gold from Athens. Judo is Israel's most successful Olympic sport and Ze'evi's bronze was the third medal for the country in the sport following Arad's silver and Oren Smadja's unexpected bronze in Barcelona in 1992. Ze'evi, who is three times European champion (2001, 03 and 04) is a medal winner in the event in seven out of the last nine years. He sealed his Olympic participation when he won the bronze this year. Ze'evi will be joined by fellow judokas Gal Yekutiel and Alice Schlesinger in the women's competition. Canoer Michael Kolganov, 33, will carry the Israeli flag at the opening ceremony. Kolganov won a bronze at Sydney in 2000 and has a world championship and two European championship golds (1999 and 2000) to his credit. He has been given the honor of being Israel's flag bearer due to his past successes and his participation in his third Olympics. Kolganov is Israel's only kayak competitor in a sport that in past recent games had a larger turnout. Kolganov will compete in the single kayak (K1) events over 500 and 1,000 meters. Ori Lewis, a Reuters news agency correspondent, is a former sports editor of the Jerusalem Post and the Haaretz English Edition. Extract from an article in Issue 9, August 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.