The story of the first Israeli sailors to participate in the Olympics is filled with several twists and turns - and was ultimately doomed by a tragedy happening 900 kilometers away.
Israel sent no sailors to the 1968 Olympics. The original favorite to go to the 1972 Munich Games was Zefania Carmel, who won the 1969 world title in the individual 420 non-Olympic sailing class in Sweden. After that feat, the fund for supporting athletes in Israel decided to award him 150 liras per month to help him prepare for Munich.
Carmel switched to the Olympic-class Flying Dutchman dinghy, partnering with Yehuda Katz. However, at an international competition in the Netherlands in April 1972, the Sdot Yam team of Itzhak Nir and Yair Michaeli finished higher than Carmel and Katz, winning the right to be the first Israeli sailors to participate in the Olympics.
Nir and Michaeli said before the Olympic competition that they hoped to finish among the top 15 teams, but competing off the coast of Kiel, some 900 kilometers from Munich, the duo was unable to navigate the weak winds that held for most of the races. Among 29 competitors, they finished 28th, 22nd, 22nd, 19th and 25th in the first five races, respectively.
Before heading out to the sixth race on the morning of September 5, the sailors were informed of the terrorist takeover of the Israeli house in the Olympic village in Munich. Still, they competed and placed 19th.
"They woke us up on the morning of the fifth," recalls Michaeli. "They told us what happened. We discussed it and decided to go on, but our heads weren't really in the competition." Boats of the German police patrolled the waters around the Israeli craft during the race.
It was their last race of the Olympics, in which they finished in 24th place overall. That same day the Israeli government decided to withdraw from the Games. "We actually wanted to continue," Michaeli says. "Not for us, but rather for the country. We and the other athletes like Shaul Ladany also wanted to stay for the closing ceremony, in order not to leave with our tails between our legs and to make it easier for the world."
However, he noted, the state had its orders, so they collected the youth sailing team, which was competing in an invitational nearby, flew to Munich and went on to Israel from there.
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