BEIJING - Ironically, it was Arik Ze'evi's sole victory yesterday that betrayed just how out of shape the Israeli judoka is. After five grueling minutes of his first bout of the day - a points victory over Frederic Demontfaucon of France - Ze'evi was clearly exhausted and out of sorts. "I felt that today was not going to be my day," he said later, having lost all of his remaining fights.
In his second fight of the day, against European champion Henk Grol of the Netherlands, Ze'evi conducted a tactical battle, and only lost because of penalty points. But in his third fight, against Brazilian Luciano Correa in the repechage, he was listless and lost on a koka. When it was all over, Ze'evi described his performance as "the worst I have had since 1999."
The Israeli judoka, who burst onto the scene at the 2000 Games in Sydney, when he was unable to stem the flow of tears after finishing fifth, was tearful again yesterday. After his elimination, he spent almost two hours holed up in the locker room, where he spoke at length with his brother, Danny, and analyzed his poor performance.
"I can't imagine myself retiring from the sport," he said. "I was lacking the drive that I usually have at these events; perhaps the pressure just got to me. I was drawn against three very tough opponents. They were all right-handers, against whom I have always had a problem, and it's possible that one of the penalties called against me was a little harsh, but I certainly didn't deserve a medal today."
Ze'evi's coach, Alex Ashkenazi, took the defeat even more to heart that the judoka himself. "It was all a question of mentality," he said. "Arik just wasn't mentally prepared when he took to the mat, and no matter what I tried, nothing helped him. All of the pressure that was on him to win a medal, and the fact that Israel's medal hopes were resting on his shoulders - it was just too much for him."
Arik opens up
As usual, Ze'evi's conversations with the media came yesterday in three stages: First, he spoke to the television reporters, then to the written press, and finally, to the Internet sites covering events in Beijing. The more he spoke, and the longer he had to internalize his disappointing day, the more he opened up.
The hundred or so Israelis who were in the audience, cheering him on even in defeat, added to the emotional level at the end of competition. As Ze'evi's day went from bad to worse, the support became louder and more full-throated.
"I could see the Israeli flags and I could hear the fans cheering me, but the moment the fights started, I was focused exclusively on my opponent," he said. "It's possible that if I were more involved, the crowd could have helped me."
For now, however, Ze'evi is looking forward to the World Championships in the Netherlands next year, and to his wedding on September 11. "From now on, I will be concentrating on my wedding and then the honeymoon. After that, I need to rest."
So, four years of hard work and dreams went up in smoke. Four years of hopes and expectations ended in disappointment. Four years of injuries and long periods of recuperation. Four years of bouts, losses, wins and occasional medals. All of it ended yesterday with a whimper. And Ze'evi, despite his size and his strength, was obviously - and touchingly - affected by his defeats. He really took them to heart.
"I always said that, as long as I am doing well, I will continue," he concluded. "At the moment, I am not doing well, so I will have to do a lot of thinking. But I still believe that I will be competing at the World Championships."
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