Marina Kravchenko secured a spot at Athens 2004 when she finished in the top three at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Luxembourg earlier this week, but only 10 people turned up to greet her when she arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport yesterday. Among them were her husband Boris Vinkerov, who is Israel's national wrestling coach, Danny Oren of the Elite Sports Unit and representatives of the Israeli Table Tennis Association, which decided it was time to show its presence. The poor turnout was symbolic, given that Kravchenko made it to the Olympics with little help.
Kravchenko, who came to Israel in 1996 from the Ukraine, has had to work hard to achieve her goal. With a lack of adequate female competition, she played in the men's league, often against players below her level. Playing against the stronger sex toughened her, but that wasn't always enough for Kravchenko. After games she would stay on to practice, often until she was asked to leave.
Kravchenko's determination and tenacity came to the attention of the Elite Sports Unit, which decided to give her financial support so she could focus on her Olympic mission. The Israel Table Tennis Association, on the other hand, didn't have the means to help out and Kravchenko had to work almost single handedly.
Kravchenko, who lives in a mobile home camped out on the grounds of the Wingate Institute, would go out looking for people to practice with. "I want to apologize to half the country for driving them crazy and begging them to play against me. I would play with anybody, even if they were at a much lower level than myself. I don't have any talent for table tennis and I owe my success to hard work. My father taught me when I was young that hard work pays and makes up for what's lacking in talent. It paid off - I'm in the Olympics."
But without some talent, you can't get so far and Kravchenko, who is ranked 71 in the world, admits to perhaps possessing some minor gifts from the gods. "Table tennis has advanced a lot in recent years. The game is faster than it used to be and demands a lot of thought. Perhaps that's where my talent lies. I think out and plan every point in advance. That's the reason that at competitions my games are always the longest. Everything I do is thought out in advance."
Only the way she reached the Olympics wasn't planned. Europe was allocated 19 places at Athens and eight of them were taken at the World Championship earlier this year which wasn't a success for Kravchenko. The fight for the remaining 11 places was left for Luxembourg.
The tournament began with 64 players fighting for an Olympic spot. After the preliminaries, 32 remained and last Friday, four booked a place at Athens. On Saturday another four places went and on Sunday the final three were up for grabs, with Kravchenko fighting for one of the three places.
Kravchenko arrived in Luxembourg accompanied by Yaniv Sharon, who was competing for a place in the men's tournament, but dropped out in the preliminaries. From then on his role was a sparring partner for Kravchenko. It wasn't an easy mission. "We were up training at seven in the morning," says Sharon, "and we stayed until they turned the lights out."
Kravchenko won three games in the preliminaries, but lost her first match in the next stage. On Saturday, she lost her second match and Sunday was her last chance to reach the Olympics.
"I didn't even think about Athens. I just wanted to win. That was my way to beat the pressure. In the deciding game against Asia Kasavov I was up 10-8 and needed just one more point. When I got it I couldn't believe that I'd won. I asked the referee five times if the game was over. I still can't believe it."
Marian Grisaru, the chair of the Israel Table Tennis Association, says that Kravchenko's achievement is enormous as Israel is one of only 10 European countries to make it to Athens. But he adds, with the Chinese dominating the sport, Kravchenko will have a hard time getting ahead at Athens.
But Kravchenko's husband, Boris Vinkerov, who will finally have a chance to see his wife play in international competition, is optimistic: "It will be tough, but with her character, anything is possible."
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