Israel's Olympic athletes won't be bringing home any medals, but at least one aspect of their performance made both the organizers and team proud - the number of appearances in the finals.

The chairman of the Olympic committee, Zvi Warshaviak, mentioned this eight times - right after Neta Rivkin and the team each reached the finals in rhythmic gymnastics. At least part of his pleasure may have been in the achievement of his younger brother, Ra'anan, head of the gymnastics association.

Actually, the whole sport has reason to be very happy. On Friday, Rivkin made everyone forget she dropped the ball - literally - during the qualifying round.

In the second part of the qualifiers, Rivkin performed clean, high-quality routines with clubs (27.525) and the ribbon (27.725), moving from 14th to seventh place and up to the finals. On Saturday, she maintained seventh place - a major improvement over her 14th-ranking at Beijing and a record for Israeli rhythmic gymnastics.

Rivkin earned a 27.350 in the hoop event, but during her ball routine, though she managed to avoid mistakes, she received a disappointing 26.840. Still, she shone with the clubs at 27.800 and ended her Olympic appearance with a ribbon routine that won her a 27.000.

Rivkin was excited at the end, as was her coach, Ela Samofalov, who couldn't stop kissing her. Warshaviak told Rivkin she would carry the national flag in the closing ceremony.

"Just the fact that I was in the finals is already something I'll never forget," Rivkin said. "I did my best and made history in a way. I'm satisfied with myself. There's a lot of pressure and you have to know how to meet the challenge."

Flag-bearing honors

Rivkin said she was thrilled to be the flag-bearer in the closing ceremony. "I couldn't have asked for more," she said.

"All this is a dream come true and another thing my father wanted and I did for him," said Rivkin, whose father died this year. "I hope he's proud of me."

"She competed very well; I'm very happy," said Samofalov of her charge, adding that she challenged Rivkin's score in the ribbon routine because "I felt she just got too low a score in terms of the elements. I wanted the judges to know that there are rules - that we're strong and we deserve what we deserve."

Sunday will be the team's turn in the finals. With a score of 26.600 for a wonderful ribbon and hoop routine, Israel advanced to seventh place, making it one of eight teams to reach the finals. And it did it to the strains of Hasidic music, with hints of "Hava Nagila."

"We did our all on the mat," Moran Buzovski said. "Now we have to collect ourselves ahead of the finals. According to Eliora Zholkovski, "I hope we make sixth place just like the previous team did."

Samofalov, who was asked whether she was as angry as she looked after the first day of competitions, said "I wasn't angry, I just wanted to concentrate. At a time like this, it's important to say the right thing and weigh every word. I promised that we would reach the finals and I'm glad we did."

According to Ra'anan Warshaviak, "This is our natural place .... We're not Russia and don't have the same resources. We're doing magic and don't expect medals, just to improve our position."