Fair Winds for Israel's Sailors - but Can They Bring Back the Medals

While Israeli sportsmen have been complaining about a lack of proper facilities for the 55 years of the country' existence, Israel's sailors have the benefit of a natural training ground - 202 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline and a further 14 kilometers along the Red Sea. Of the 12 470 class sail pairs registered with the Israel Yachting Association, four are ranked among the top 10 in the world.

Ahead of Israel's quest for a sea medal at the Athens Olympics, the IYA's president Yehuda Mayan, a former Olympic competitor in the Flying Dutchman class, backed by the association's technical adviser, Gal Friedlander, a former Olympian in the 470 class, decided to focus Israel's efforts on the 470 class, the most prestigious of the 11 sailing and surfing classes participating in the Olympic games. The 470 classes' popularity can be explained by the fact that the sport's characteristics leave it open to all races from a physiological point of view. Sailors in the 470 class need to be particularly light - around 126 kg per pair in the women's event and 132 kg in the men's class - thus enabling South East Asian nations to compete on an equal footing with the heavier-built Europeans and Americans.

From a local point of view, the relatively low cost of a 470 class sailboat, is also an attraction. While the cost of a Flying Dutchman class boat (which was removed from the Barcelona Olympics in 1992) is some NIS 170,000, the cost of a 470 class boat is around NIS 120,000. The budget of the Israeli Yachting Association is NIS 2.8 million a year and its budget for the Olympics is NIS 1.1 million, which is less than nothing in international terms. At the moment, Israel's sailors are short of some $200,000 to make optimal preparations for the Athens Olympics.

Israel's Olympic hopes are of course centered on windsurfer Gal Friedman, who is ranked first in the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) rankings and already holds a bronze medal from the Atlanta Olympics and a gold medal from last year's world championship in Thailand. But the question is, what does the future hold? The complete domination of Israeli windsurfing by Friedman and his rival Amit Inbar, who has in the meantime retired, prevented the development of a new generation of top rank windsurfers. Amir Levinson was world youth champion four times but was forced to retire in view of the qualitative hurdle placed by Friedman and Inbar. If Friedman lifts the Olympic gold at Athens and then retires, we will probably have to wait a few years before another surfer of his level appears.

A cruel system

The battle for an Olympic spot in the 470 class is much more interesting. In both the men's and the women's event, two pairs are competing for the one Olympic spot. The international qualification criteria for the Athens Olympics is a place among the first eight at the World Sailing Championships in Cadiz in September, but the Israeli criteria is tougher yet. Ahead of the Sydney Olympics, Eli Tzukerman and Elad Ronen competed for a place along with brothers Ran and Nir Chantal. At the World Sailing Championships, Tzukerman and Ronen finished in 19th place and the Chantal brothers in 20th. Under the current Israeli criteria, neither pair would have been eligible for a ticket to the Olympics.

Israel's 470 currently have to pass three qualifying stages: The Semaine Olympique Francaise in Hyeres, which finished last week; the European Championship in Brest in July and the World Championships in Cadiz. Under the Israeli qualifying system, points are awarded from 12th place and up. One point is awarded for 12th place, two for 11th place and so on. Third place gets a further three bonus points and second place another four bonus points.

In the women's 470 event, Nika Korentzky and Vered Buskila, who took second place at Hyeres, have accumulated 15 points, while Linor Kliger and Anat Fabrikant, who finished eighth have accumulated five points. In the men's event Gidi Kliger, (Linor's brother), and Udi Gal who finished eighth have accumulated five points, while Yogev Yossef and Shahaf Amir, who finished in 16th place at Hyeres, have no points at all.

The system may be somewhat cruel, but Israel's national coach Ilan Tashtash says that there is no other way. Tashtash has already overcome the trauma of the Sydney Olympics when he saw Anat Fabrikant and Shani Kedmi make a fatal mistake at the final turn and lose their medal spot to the American pair. Since then, Kedmi has retired while 27-year-old Fabrikant, the elder of the women's 470 class in Israel, now sails with 21-year-old Linor Kliger. Tashtash discovered Vered Buskila when she was 10 years old. At the youth level she sailed with Kliger and registered several achievements in international competition. The two however decided to split up and Fabrikant decided to sail with Kedmi.

In a sport in which experience and mental fortitude are vital, three of Israel's women's 470 sailors are only 21 years old, but this hasn't affected their quality, experts say. Sailors are measured from the shoulder up, says Mayan, while Tashtash says the girls have already proved themselves. "It's not just technique and tactics. It's the way its all woven together," says the national team coach.

Kliger and Fabrikant have only been sailing together for a year, while Buskila and Korentzky have been together for three years. Sailing commentators say Korentzky and Buskila are good under all wind conditions and have already proved their grit at Hyeres, where they overcame a broken mast that forced them out of the first day's sailing to finish the event in second place. As yet the coordination between Fabrikant, who sailed for six years with Shani Kedmi, is not perfect, but one good competition and the challenge with Buskila and Korentzky will be balanced. This week, Kilger and Fabrikant were ranked eighth in the world, Buskila and Korentzky fourth, Gal and Kliger eighth and Yossef and Amir 10th. Changes can be expected in the next rankings, with the women perhaps moving up and the men moving down. One thing is for sure, in Israeli sports the only place such a concentration of quality can be found is at sea. The question is, will that quality bring a medal at the Athens Olympics.