A mythic undertaking

In the run-up to the Games, Israel's Beijing-bound athletes share their hopes and fears.

olympic promo 224 (photo credit: )
olympic promo 224
(photo credit: )
Arik Ze'evi's road to the Beijing Olympics has been anything but straightforward. Shoulder and elbow injuries threatened to keep the judoka out of the Games and at one stage the thought of retiring even crossed his mind. The bronze medalist from the 2004 Athens Olympics is still suffering with his shoulder, but this coming Thursday he will nevertheless be one of the favorites in the 100-kilogram judo competition. Ze'evi's story embodies that of the entire Israeli delegation to these Olympics. Despite experiencing many lows since Athens, the country will be sending 43 athletes to Beijing, the most in its history. Two positive drug tests, financial difficulties and a couple of scandals made sure there wasn't a dull moment at Olympic Committee of Israel (OCI) headquarters in Hadar Yosef over the last four years. Nonetheless, the delegation will enter the National Stadium in Beijing, better known as the bird's nest, full of confidence for the opening ceremony, and like Ze'evi, every athlete will be hoping to cap some forgettable years with an unforgettable moment. A three-time European champion, Ze'evi has spent the last few weeks training rigorously and is in an optimistic mood. "I don't believe in training differently for the Olympic Games. I've claimed many medals for Israel and if I could get the job done in the European and World Championships, I can also make it happen in the Olympics," he tells The Jerusalem Post. "When I was 15 and I saw Yael Arad and Oren Smadja win Israel's first Olympic medals, that day I decided I wanted to be an Olympic medalist." An Olympic medal will be the recurring motive in the dreams of many of Israel's sporting stars in the next two weeks, but the air of optimism that is currently engulfing Ze'evi and the rest of the delegation could quickly fade in the coming 15 days. The long way the athletes have come will count for almost nothing if results at the Games don't follow, as OCI secretary-general Efraim Zinger, the delegation's chief of mission in China, is well aware. "Our goal, which we announced three years ago, is to remain in the prestigious club of medal-winning countries. If the delegation returns with one or two medals, we will be extremely satisfied," Zinger says. "One thing that is already giving us great satisfaction is the size of the delegation. When we announced the criteria in December 2006, we got quite a bit of criticism which claimed that the toughening of the criteria would result in a small delegation. The athletes, however, are masters of their own fates and they're the ones who determine if they meet the criteria. I'm happy that 43 athletes proved that they deserve to take part in the Olympics, but we will only be fully satisfied when we return to Israel knowing that every one of the sportsmen and sportswomen did their very best in Beijing." Gili Lostig, the director of the Elite Sport Department, is proud of every athlete in the delegation, but he admits that especially pleasing for him was the qualification of the rhythmic gymnastics team. "We haven't had a team in the last few Games and this was one of our goals for Beijing. Having a team at the Olympics is proof of the depth of the sport in the country. The team met a very tough criterion and should reach the Olympic final." To Lostig's delight, 23 of the 43 athletes in the delegation are younger than 23. "I'm also very pleased with the fact that so many of young athletes will be taking part in the Games. This shows we're planning for the future. Our youngsters are very gifted and some of them could even surprise us in Beijing. "Another positive point is that we have got several veterans in the delegation. Alex Averbukh, Michael Kolganov, Arik Ze'evi and Guy Starik all met the criteria, and their participation is important as it shows that sport isn't just for youngsters." TWICE IN the last two months the delegation's preparations were rocked by drug scandals. On June 18, sailor Udi Gal tested positive for the banned substance finasteride because of an anti-balding medication he was taking, and exactly a month later swimmer Max Jaben failed a drug test after his urine sample contained traces of the anabolic steroid boldenone. Gal will compete in the Olympics with partner Gidi Kliger in the 470 Class sailing competition after an Israel Yachting Association hearing committee decided to let him off with a reprimand due to the circumstances of his case. Jaben, however, was suspended almost immediately from the delegation and is out of the Games. "Jaben's case is especially disappointing," Lostig, says. "We're talking about an athlete who came to the Maccabiah and decided to make aliya and live here. He settled in very well and made impressive progress in the pool, meeting the OCI's criteria. This is a shattered dream and a bitter disappointment." Lostig is happy with the current testing system, but believes more can be done. "I think that we must do more drug tests and improve drug awareness. Tests are the best deterrent and we must continue giving them," he says. "We also need to explain to the athletes time and again that they can't take anything without checking. They must also know that if they take the risk and use a banned substance, they will receive a long suspension like Max Jaben." Zinger also couldn't hide his disappointment regarding Jaben's positive test. "It's very frustrating when all the effort and investment put into an athlete is lost in an instant because of some silly mistake. These mistakes shouldn't occur, but if they do it's our job to know about them," Zinger says. "Both Gal's and Jaben's cases were discovered by our drug committee. Part of the OCI's criteria was that as well as recording certain results, you also have to pass a drug test and in those tests the two athletes were found to be positive. We are known in the Olympic world as one of the stricter national Olympic committees when it comes to drug testing. The International Olympic Committee takes a very hard line on this issue and the last thing any of us wants is for an Israeli to fail a drug test at the Olympics." ONE SPORTSMAN who will most definitely not fail a drug test in Beijing is shooter Guy Starik. The 43-year-old, who equaled the world record in the 50-meter rifle prone contest in Munich less than three months ago, shooting a perfect 600, will join Yoel Sela next week as the only Israeli to ever compete in four Olympic Games. A former European champion, Starik's best Olympic performance came in the 1996 Atlanta Games. The sharpshooter finished the 50-meter rifle three positions competition in 13th place 12 years ago, but is confident he can better that showing next Friday. "I'm in good shape at the moment. My first goal is to reach the final and anyone who progresses to the final in my discipline has a good chance of claiming a medal," Starik says. "There's no secret to success at the Olympics. Technically I have the ability to beat anybody in the world and at the Olympics it will all depend on my mental state on the day of the competition." Starik is upbeat about his chances of claiming an historic medal. "I'm always optimistic. I think being optimistic is key to sporting success," he says. "An athlete should always look on the positive side and see the full half of the glass." Despite his age, Starik isn't considering retirement and is already looking forward to the London Olympics in 2012. "I'm definitely planning to participate in the next Olympics. As long as I can shoot at a high level I will continue to compete," he says. "As soon as I see I have nothing to sell on the international level, I will hang up my boots. As long as I'm good enough, I will continue. I enjoy what I do very much and I always feel that I can improve, so I'm going to continue shooting." Starik very nearly missed out on the Games after initially falling short of the IOC's criteria. He was, however, eventually given a quota place for an outstanding achievement after setting the world record in June. SEVERAL ISRAELI athletes, most notably tennis player Dudi Sela, found themselves in the opposite situation to Starik after meeting the international criteria but not the local ones. Sela met the IOC's criteria of being ranked among the world's top 48 players after taking into consideration the fact that each country can send no more than four players. (Spain, for example, has eight in the top 50, but only its top four can go to the Games. As such Sela, ranked 64 overall, made the top 48). The 23-year-old fell short, however, of the OCI's stricter standard of being ranked among the world's top-50 overall and slammed the committee for not allowing him to compete in Beijing. "Israel hasn't had a men's singles player in the Olympics since 1992 so why don't they send me?" Sela told the Post after his loss in the first round of Wimbledon. "I met the IOC's criteria, but they don't want to send me and I don't understand why. I really don't know what they're doing. All I can do now is hope to play in four years in London." Swimmers Dan Katzir and Olga Beresneva even went as far as appealing to Tel Aviv District Court, but their request to force the OCI to add them to the delegation was rejected out of hand. The OCI was furious that Katzir and Beresneva turned to the civil courts, and Lostig believes Sela has no reason to feel hard done by. "We set the criteria after a very long process and all the different associations, including the tennis association, gave their approval," he says. "We decided that the Israeli criteria would be identical to the criteria needed by the athlete to be part of the OCI's special roster, so that there would be a unity among allthe different sports. In fact, tennis players had it slightly easier, as we only took the ranking into consideration and didn't demand results at target competitions like World and European championships as we did in most of the other sports." At one stage even Ze'evi was a doubt for the Beijing Games, and he only eventually met the criteria in March after winning the World Cup event in Prague. All the difficulties are, however, in the past now, and Ze'evi is fully focused on joining Gal Fridman as the only Israeli to win two Olympic medals. "I want to do my best, and if I do that I'm expecting to win a medal," Ze'evi says. The 31-year-old admitted that his right shoulder will never be 100 percent again, but after coming fifth in the Sydney Olympics and third in Athens, he's aiming to finish two places higher once more in Beijing. "I want to improve on my bronze medal. I'm building on the fact that all the young men who are competing against me will be excited in their first Olympics and won't perform well and I, with all my experience, will win the medal." When asked on what was the most rewarding moment of his career, Ze'evi didn't need long to replay. "When I won the bronze medal at the Athens Games all the Israeli fans started to sing the national anthem, 'Hatikva.' Some 2000 people were singing and I think it was the most exciting moment of my life." If Ze'evi realizes his dream next Thursday and ascends to the top of the Olympic podium, all of Israel will be singing "Hatikva" once more, this time to the sound of the PA system at Beijing's Science and Technology University gymnasium.