Above board?

Nimrod Mashiah’s move to torpedo fellow windsurfer Shahar Zubari’s medal hopes at European Championships might have been legal, but it increased tension between the two.

Windsurfer Shahar Zubari  521 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Olympic Committee of Israel)
Windsurfer Shahar Zubari 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Olympic Committee of Israel)
Shahar Zubari and Nimrod Mashiah have never really gotten along. However, after years in which they weren’t even on speaking terms, Israel’s two leading windsurfers were persuaded to put past grudges aside ahead of their battle for a place at next summer’s London Olympics.
So much for that.
It is highly unlikely either of the two will even look in the other’s direction when they meet at the Israel championships in Sdot Yam in two weeks time after Mashiah denied Zubari a medal at last week’s European Championships, the first of four events to determine which of the two will take part in the 2012 Games.
Israel can send only one representative to the RS:X windsurfing competition in London, meaning only one winner will arise from the rivalry between these two opposites.
While the 25-year-old Zubari is relatively small and slender, Mashiah, 23, is big and brawny, meaning the two also have completely different surfing styles.
Any way you compare them you find that they are virtually mirror images of each other.
Zubari and Mashiah have both done exceptionally well in the past three years and either will be one of Israel’s best medal hopes in London.
Mashiah won his second straight medal at the windsurfing World Championships last year, taking a bronze in Kerteminde, Denmark, a year after claiming a silver.
Zubari, on the other hand, disappointed at the recent world’s, finishing in 17th place a year after coming 13th.
However, the Eilat native won back-to-back gold medals at the European Championships in 2009 and 2010 and has already proven he can succeed on the Olympic stage, taking a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Zubari was also on course for a third consecutive podium finish in the Europeans last week – until Mashiah intervened.
Zubari entered the final race of the event’s 14 in third place and was a firm favorite to at least hold on for a bronze medal, and to perhaps even claim a silver.
But the battle between the two came to a boil in Burgas, Bulgaria, last Sunday, after Mashiah, who was out of medal contention, spent the crucial race trying to hamper Zubari’s progress, resulting in the latter finishing the final day in eighth place and dropping to fourth position overall.
Mashiah, who ended the competition in eighth, decided to slow down Zubari due to the point system implemented by the Olympic Committee of Israel in the contest between the two.
Zubari would have picked up 15 points had he taken a bronze, but instead he had to settle for a mere seven points after dropping to fourth place, while Mashiah collected three.
Unsurprisingly, Zubari was outraged.
“There’s no doubt he made a tactical move. He thought about it and planned it,” Zubari told reporters upon his arrival back in Israel last week. “It is important to note that he was allowed to do what he did. But I ask myself, was that the ethical thing to do? I’m not sure I would have done the same thing. He knew that the event was over for him so he tried to ruin it for me.
“Mashiah made a smart move as far as he’s concerned, but the country, the sailing association and I all lost a medal because of that.”
Mashiah, of course, sees things very differently.
“If Shahar had taken a medal he would have opened a big lead,” said Mashiah, who is guided by Israel’s 2004 Olympic gold medalist, Gal Fridman.
“I did what I had to do and anyone who understands windsurfing appreciates what I did. The Israeli sailing association can only blame itself that Israel lost out on a medal, because they decided that the Europeans would be one of the events to determine who goes to the Olympics. I did what I had to do to realize my dream of competing in the Olympics and I feel completely fine with that,” added Mashiah, who was unhappy with Zubari’s conduct in Bulgaria, where he twice appealed to have his rival’s results overturned.
“I believe that within a few days or weeks people will calm down. We are adults, not children, and I personally take it all in a sporting fashion and I believe he will as well. He’s a very experienced surfer and I believe that once he calms down he will accept it,” he told reporters.
However, Mashiah has no illusions that the two will ever be friends.
“We had a basically okay relationship, but that only lasted about a month until the Europeans,” he said.
“After what happened I don’t think that he’ll be happy to see me.”
Sailing association head coach Gur Steinberg was almost as disappointed as Zubari, but the mastermind behind Israel’s sailing and windsurfing success over the past decade believes that there is also a positive side to all the current negativity between the country’s top windsurfers.
“This is difficult to take and it was very painful to watch. You feel like you are having a medal taken away by a family member,” Steinberg told reporters.
“But we decided that the results in the top championships will be the ones which determine who represents Israel in the Olympics and we believe that in the long run this will make our eventual representative much stronger.”
The second of the four decisive events will be December’s World Championships in Perth, Australia, with the third being the 2012 world’s in Spain next March. The tense race for an Olympic berth will come to an end with a World Cup event in the Netherlands.
“It is cruel that only one surfer can go to the Olympics,” the director of Israel’s Elite Sport Department, Gili Lostig, told The Jerusalem Post before the windsurfing battle commenced. “But those are the IOC’s rules and I think competition in sports is an advantage as it pushes the athletes to improve. It forces the athlete to keep looking for ways to get better and will bring out the best from both surfers.”
After what happened last week, it is hard to say that the fierce competition is bringing out the best in Zubari and Mashiah.
And to think that with still 10 more months of this to come, things have only started to get interesting.