Israel is hardly an Olympic heavyweight nation, the first "blue-and-white" medal was won in 1992, 40 years after Israelis first took part in an Olympic Games. Three others have been won since Yael Arad finally delivered what so many others had promised to do but had failed for one reason or another. Arad won the silver medal in the women's judo competition at the Barcelona Games and fellow judoka Oren Smadja added an unexpected bronze at the same event the following day.

In 1996 in Atlanta, Gal Friedman got the bronze in the windsurfing event, and in last year's Sydney Games Michael Kalganov also won bronze in the K1 Kayak event.

For Israeli sports fans, all four medals have become champagne moments in the annals of Israeli sport. But that is the sum total of almost half a century's effort. Israeli ball game teams fail time and again to get into the Olympic Games, and winter sports were almost unthinkable until a few years ago.

Israel competed in the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer for the first time in 1994 when ice skater Michael Shmerkin became the state's first representative in the Games. Since then there has been a tremendous upswing in interest only for a few dedicated men and women, who are prepared to travel to one of the northernmost points in the country to the Canada Center in Metulla - the country's only international class ice skating facility.

There will be five Israelis competing at the Salt Lake Games which get under way today - two ice dance couples (Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovsky and Natalia Gudina and Alexei Beletzky) and one woman short-track speed skater (Olga Danilova).

Chait and Sakhnovsky are serious medal contenders - the 26-year-olds are not leading contenders but they do have a realistic shot at a podium finish. The couple trains regularly in the United States with the world's leading coaches. Chait is a Kfar Sava native who moved to the United States at a young age, while Sakhnovksy was born in Moscow.

Breakthrough

Through the determination of Chait's father, Boris, who manages the couple, the couple has achieved much success over the past few years. Four years ago at the Nagano Olympics, the couple put on an impressive, although not brilliant performance, to finish 14th. Although that placing was short of world class, 14th was a real achievement. Then came a 10th-place finish at the European championships and a 13th place finish in the World Championships.

The real breakthrough came two years ago when the couple began to train with Tatiana Terassova, one of the world's leading coaches. Only recently, however, has the couple changed its coach to Natalia Dubova, another world leader.

The real change in Chait and Sakhnovsky's standard of performance has come in the last two years. A fifth place finish at the last world championships which was supplemented by a similar result at the European Championships two weeks ago, as well as participation in the Grand Prix competition which is open only to the top six ice dance couples in the world.

Realistic expectations from Chait and Sakhnovsky at Salt Lake City would see them finish somewhere between fourth and sixth place, but with a bit of luck and a favorable run of marks from the judging panel, who have a very high degree of influence on the outcome, the couple could end up with a medal.

Sergei Sakhnovksy is already used to standing on top of the winners' podium, after he became junior men's skating world champion in 1993. A little later he visited relatives in Israel and decided to stay here.

Sakhnovsky is a graduate of the physical education faculty at Moscow University, while Chait studied at Delaware University. Now they are fully professional and devoted to their sport. They train and compete for six days a week, 11 months a year, and during their month off, they spend much of the time in Israel.

The medal contest at Salt Lake City will be a difficult one indeed. The Israeli couple is usually looking up at three or four couples who have consistently managed to finish above them: Barbara Fuser-Poli and Maurizio Margolio of Italy, the world champions; Marina Anissina and Gwendal Piezera the European champions from France, who are the favorites for the gold medal; Irena Lubacheva and Ilia Averbukh of Russia; and Canada's Shae-Lynn Bourne and Viktor Kratz, who won the grand prix a month ago. All will be formidable obstacles for the Israelis. The Lithuanian couple Drobiazkas and Nagas, who are at the same level as Chait and Sakhnovsky, will be the first team the Israelis will have to knock off on their way to a medal.

Often, the level of intensity and excitement at an Olympic Games far exceeds that of the world and European championships. It is a prime venue for silly and unexpected mistakes from some, while others can succeed beyond their wildest expectations. If one of the top couples slips up while the Israeli due remains in top form, a medal chance becomes even more of a possibility.

The artistic side of the Israelis' routine is their strongest selling point to the judges. They will dance to a medley of Jewish tunes including "Hava Nagila," "My Yiddishe Mamme" and "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." The music has been recorded especially for them by one of London's leading symphony orchestras, and the visual side will be supplemented by the couple's attire which will be adorned by large Stars of David sewn into the fabric.

Balance of fear

The clothing will not help their score in the judges' eyes, but they claim it is aimed at U.S. Jewish support. What could help their cause, however, is the fact that for the first time, Israel will have a representative on the judging panel in the shape of Katalin Alpern. She could create a "balance of fear" in which other judges will be wary of giving the Israelis low marks, knowing that she could harm other competitors' performances by doing likewise. Chait and Sakhnovsky have in the past been the subject of poor marking, a lamentable fact of life in the politics surrounding ice skating.

Despite their full professional status, Chait and Sakhnovsky are almost unique in not being backed by corporate sponsors, something which is unheard of today both in Russia and in the West. It is only through Boris Chait's support and the limited help of the Olympic Committee of Israel that they manage to maintain themselves.

The couple arrived at Salt Lake City yesterday to make their final preparations before the competition begins a week from today. Three days later it will be clear whether they have achieved their aim, and Israel will have notched an almost unbelievable medal at the Winter Olympics.

The second Israeli couple, Gudina and Beletzky, can look ahead with expectation to a bright future. The 21-year-olds will do well to finish somewhere between 14th place and 17th place, which is where they finished in the recent European Championships. Anything higher than 14th would be considered a major achievement, but even a finish slightly below 17th will not be a disappointment. The couple is planning a Greek dance routine which has not yet been performed in public. For them, just participating and getting international experience will serve them well in the future.

The fact that Gudina and Beletzky are competing at all is a huge statement for Israeli Olympic competition and signals that there is a future for winter sports in the boiling climes of our region.