Israel's countdown to the Olympic Games begins

The key men behind the Israeli team discuss their hopes for medals in Beijing this summer.

andy ram 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
andy ram 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger [file])
With just 100 days to go to the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Israel's top sportsmen and sportswomen are going through their final preparations. Gilad Lustig and Efraim Zinger are two people who know more than anybody else about Israel's chances in China and The Jerusalem Post caught up with both of them to hear their thoughts and feelings with the games opening ceremony just around the corner. "A failure to win a medal will be a disappointment," says Lustig, the director of Israel's Elite Sport Department, the division set up in 1984 to oversee the selection of athletes for the Olympics. "I hope we claim between one or two medals and reach between six and eight finals. "It is, however, much tougher to take a medal these days. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for example, 80 different countries claimed medals, while in the 2004 Athens Olympics only 75 countries won medals." Zinger, the secretary general of the Olympic Committee of Israel will be the delegation's chief of mission in China and is also expecting to return to Israel with at least one medal. "Our main goal is to keep our place among the very elite club of nations which win Olympic medals," Zinger says. "It may look trivial now, but it isn't. It just gets harder and harder and in Beijing it's going to be even tougher. Nevertheless, we're not changing our goals and we definitely expect to claim between one or two medals." Despite the optimism, Lustig is still wary of naming the man or woman who he feels will win a medal, but was willing to list his favorites to finish on the Olympic podium. "I think it's still a bit early to say, who our best candidate for a medal is, because that very much depends on the athletes form right before the games," Lustig says. "We must claim a medal in the sailing. Our best candidates are Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger, who have been very consistent, and Shahar Tzuberi, who has shown a lot of progress, winning the bronze medal at the World Championships and beating Gal Fridman. "Nika Kornecki and Vered Buskila can also record a good result if they're in good form. We have invested a lot in this sport and therefore it must come back with a medal." Looking beyound the sea, Lustig continues, "The second medal will come from the other sporting events. The nominees at the moment are Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, Arik Ze'evi and gymnast Alex Shatilov, who has reached two World Championships finals, and who on a given day can win a medal." Even though the games will only get underway in three and a half months, Lustig is very pleased to have already met one of the key goals the OCI set itself after the 2004 Athens Games. "One of our main expectations was that we will have between 38 and 40 sportsmen in our delegation and I'm very happy we have already met that," Lustig says. "When we toughened the criteria's for these Olympics some people said that we won't even have 20 athletes in China. "I think that the fact that we toughened the criteria's means that all the athletes that will be in the Olympics will fight for a place in the final of their respected events. Of course not everybody will make it, because there's no such thing in sport, especially not at this level." Zinger, who was in Beijing last week, attending the annual Assembly of the National Olympic Committees, was impressed by the Chinese preparations. "The entire city of Beijing is primed for the Olympic Games. The stadiums and arenas are all but ready and they just finished the building of the main stadium, the birds nest," he says. "They have three more months to put the finishing touches to all the facilities and I have no doubt that they will finish everything so that when the delegations arrive everything will be ready." There have been concerns that the growing Tibet protests will mar the Olympics and even see some nations boycott the games. Zinger, however, is convinced that no nation will shun the Olympics and is adamant that politics and sport shouldn't be mixed. "The official position of the Olympic movement and the OCI's as well, is that there's no place to mix politics and sport. There are plenty of international organizations which deal with politics and we must protect the Olympics from this," Zinger says. "The Olympic movement is a champion of freedom of speech, so everyone has the right to express there personal opinion freely and we've made this clear to the Chinese." Absurdly, NIS 10 million allocated by the Israeli government for the Olympic preparations have yet to reach their target. "The state is supposed to budget the sporting organizations for the Olympic preparations and has yet to do so and the games are just 100 days away," Zinger says. "Fortunately, we had the financial resources and prepared for the Olympics in unprecedented fashion. But if you look at the contribution of the State of Israel then I can sadly say that there wasn't any. "We managed to convince Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a while ago to budget the preparations with NIS 10 million. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the decision has been made and that the money is available, bureaucracy means the money is stuck and hasn't arrived at its destiny." Zinger believes there's a simple solution to the problem. "There should be an Olympic preparation law in Israel," he says. "Olympic Games don't come by surprise and you know many years in advance when they will be held. The Olympics are a national project and it's about time that they are institutionalized." Despite the fact the money from the state has yet to arrive, Lustig agrees with Zinger that Israel's athletes have never had it so good. "I'm very pleased with our preparations so far. I think that our sportsmen have never gotten so much. Sometimes they've even been given too much and there's even a bit of a feeling of ungratefulness. All in all we are very pleased with the preparations which were almost optimal," he says. The final 100 days could prove crucial to the athletes' chances and the OCI has made detailed preparations for each of Israel's sportsmen. "We've planned an optimal plan for every one of our sportsmen ahead of the games. We're trying to give them all the information about what will happen in Beijing," Lustig says. "We believe that success also depends on these things. The more the athletes knows, the less intimidating the Olympics will be, and eventually that will increase the chances of succeeding."