Israeli Athletes Gear Up as 2008 Olympic Games Set to Begin

Haaretz.com presents an overview of Israel's delegation to Beijing - at 42 athletes, its biggest ever.

The big day has arrived for 1.3 billion Chinese, thousands of athletes and fans around the world - the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Israel is sending 42 athletes to this year's games, its largest delegation in history.

The best-known Israeli athlete, according to a survey conducted by the Absorption Ministry toward the end of July, is judoka Arik Ze'evi . Eleven percent of the respondents knew that he is a member of the Olympic delegation. After him came tennis player Shahar Pe'er, with 5 percent. Seven percent recognized Israel's first gold medalist, windsurfer Gal Fridman, but Fridman is not going to compete in Beijing. The sailboarder who has replaced him is Shahar Tzuberi, who easily achieved the Israeli Olympic criterion.

Tzuberi is an outspoken fellow with a lot of self-confidence and a big mouth, in the positive sense, but he has not had time to become a familiar figure. Perhaps this will happen if he comes back from China with a medal around his neck. Many of his colleagues in the delegation that will march today in Beijing's Olympic stadium say that even a medal won't help - at least as long as it isn't clear that their audience is not only looking for success in sport but also, and perhaps mainly, for the human story.

It is the athletes' right to maintain their privacy, even when they are representing Israel and enjoying financial support that comes mostly from the public coffers. It is their right not to reveal their fears and their dreams. It is their right to bore us in interviews, with battered cliches and demonstrations of false modesty. However, they should know that their choice also has a price, expressed in a lack of public interest in their exploits during the coming weeks. Here are sketches of some of the unsung heroes of the summer of 2008.

Tzipi Obziler

Tennis player, ranked 116th internationally, will participate in the doubles tournament

Sometimes good things happen after a lot of patience. Tzipi Obziler was already out of professional life. After treading water, so to speak, and an inability to burst into the top 100, she specialized in coaching children, and in the absence of an alternative at her level she continued to play in the federation cup tournament with the tennis team, that is to say, with Anna Smashnova.

And then in 2002, a hopeless match against the United States came along. Obziler, who was then ranked 287th in the world, lost 2:0 to Monica Seles, fourth in the world, but the spark returned. She won the Israeli championship in 2004-2005 and last year, at the age of 34, for the first time in her career she joined the top one hundred. Now there was a chance of being given a place in the Grand Slam competition without having to compete in three preliminary rounds against ambitious young women seeking glory. Then, too, the Olympic dream was born, but as is usually the case with Obziler, it was fulfilled only after delays. The possibility of getting to Beijing by ranking at least 50th internationally, as Olympic criteria dictate, turned out to be unrealistic. She had already lost hope, but her coach, Lior Mor, found a loophole in the regulations and the Olympic Committee agreed to allow her to join Shahar Pe?er and play alongside her in the doubles tournament. Though the two have played together in the past and even won five games, before the flight to China they trained together for only two days. The Olympic Committee is not expecting them to win more than one or two games.

Veronika Vitenberg, Alona Dvornichenko, Raheli Vigdorchik, Maria Savenkov, and Katerina Pisetsky

The Israeli women's rhythmic gymnastics team, sixth place in the world championships

"We have a group team in the Olympics," the Israel Olympic Committee boasted. But it's a little hard to make a convincing case for this to sports fans who are used to associating the word 'team' with ball games. True, they too have a ball that they need to throw and catch, but the bottom line is that they are five young women who do things that look lovely to the eye but are hard for a spectator at home or in the bleachers to judge beyond the level of 'Wow, how beautiful' or 'The hoop fell down, so no doubt they will deduct points.'

The question of judging is central to this sport. Although the Israeli team is one of the top 10 in the world, and in the last world championships - held on the evening after Yom Kippur in 2007, with secret practice at the hotel - it achieved sixth place, it could well finish in China in fifth to eighth place, but no higher than that. Israel does not have a judge at the Olympic games and therefore its gymnasts cannot benefit from the internal politics of the sport (I'll give your team points and you?ll give my team a boost). What remains is the internal politics of the two best and toughest coaches in the sport: Ira Vigdorchik of Holon and Natasha Osmolov of Petah Tikva. The former has nurtured Ira Risenzon, who has a chance of finishing among the top 10 in the individual competitions in Beijing, as well as four out of the five members of the group team, including Vigdorchik's daughter Raheli. The latter has built up the Israeli team around the experienced Katya Pisetsky. The feuds between them have been ugly - the dirty laundry was displayed for all to see, the gymnasts were hurt and Osmolov found herself outside the delegation. Hopefully, the team will manage to overcome all of this by the time the competitions start. They are worthy of sixth place, but without an Israeli judge, they apparently don?t stand a chance.

Dlila Hatuel

Fencer, seventh place in the European championships

A chain of associations can be drawn between Acre and fencing and the Hatuels, who have created something of a dynasty in the sport. Dlila?s aunt, Lydia Hatuel, competed in the Los Angeles, Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. She was absent from the Moscow Olympics in 1980, which Israel boycotted in protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1988 games in Seoul the competitions were scheduled for Yom Kippur. Her uncle, Yitzhak Hatuel, also participated as a fencer in the Los Angeles games. Her father, Haim Hatuel, who started out as an athlete and became a leading trainer, coached fencer Ayelet Ohayon. Now he is going to Beijing with his daughter.

Dlila, 27, did not have many opportunities as a child, not when her father was already a fencing coach and her aunt and uncle were competing in the Olympics. She also overcame a negative image after some of her relatives got involved in crime, the last example of this being her cousin Kobi Hatuel, Israel's youth champion and hope for the future, who was convicted of dealing drugs and sent to prison. Dlila has forged ahead during the past two years. In the latest European championships she defeated Valentina Vezzali, Olympic and world champion, but injured her ankle. The injury has lowered the Israeli Olympic Committee's predictions for her.

Instead of focusing on preparing for the competition through sport, Hatuel has undergone surgery and physiotherapy, which threatened to use up the last shreds of her optimism. She went to the meeting with the Olympic team at the President's Residence without crutches, to prove to everyone and to herself that she is fine. But as the wait at the entrance grew long, she said her foot hurt in order to skip to the head of the line and get in quickly. Her fitness tests are still in progress and her trip to Beijing will be only for the sake of participating, but this need not be the end of the chapter. Hungarian Timea Nagy won a gold medal in fencing at the Athens games at the age of 34 and two years later (for the fifth time) she won the world championship.

Itai Megidi

Athlete, 11th place in the European championships 3,000-meter steeplechase

The Olympic competition in the 3,000-meter steeplechase run is an internal Kenyan affair. Beginning with the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the winner of the gold medal has always been from Kenya. In fact, if we ignore the 1980 Moscow games and the 1976 Montreal games, which the Kenyans boycotted for political reasons, their control has lasted for 40 years, ever since Amos Biwott won the gold in the 1968 games in Mexico City. In most cases the silver medal has also been won by a Kenyan and twice, in Barcelona in 1992 and in Athens in 2004, Kenyans took all three places on the winners' stand in this race.

Itai Megidi, the Israeli representative in this challenging event - which requires stamina, speed, aerobic capability, jumping and extremely precise technique - does not imagine, even in his wildest fantasies, that he will succeed in beating the Kenyans out of the top places in the ranking. But he has no hesitation about revealing that he aspires to be one of the dozen runners who will participate in the final race in Beijing. If we take into account the fact that Megidi is ranked only 40th among the runners who will take part in the games, this sounds like an impossible goal. However, up until a month ago, even his participation in the Beijing games was a remote dream. Megidi, 27, a native of Yavneh and a graduate (in civil engineering) of Clemson University in South Carolina, has never been a top name in the five-year plans of the Israeli Athletics Association. He ensured his place in Beijing, alongside just two other Israeli athletes, only at the beginning of July. During the previous months, he sped around from one competition to the next all across Israel and Europe in order to achieve the Israeli Olympic criterion (8:25 minutes). He did this at a competition that was held in Metz, France, at which he set a new Israeli record of 8:24:14 minutes.

And this is how he summed it up in the blog he keeps about his career, which began toward the end of 1995: "The way has been long and alongside the successes there have been painful injuries and periods of idleness that I don?t wish upon anyone. But the persistence has proved itself and there is no one happier than I am these days."

On August 16, 2008, a number of Kenyan-born runners will cross the finish line after 3,000 meters and 35 hurdles. After them, perhaps, will be Itai Megidi. Many will say that he lost, but he will know it was a huge victory.

Alex Shatilov

Gymnast, fifth place in the floor exercise world championship in September 2007

Gymnast Alex Shatilov ensured his participation in the Beijing Games after ranking in fifth place in floor exercises at the 2007 world championships. I remember that week very well, because that was the week when the column 'Olympic Village' was to be published for the first time in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz. I prepared a brief text, about 200 words, on the media discrimination that young Shatilov, a native of Uzbekistan, was suffering from a short time after he had won the entry ticket to Beijing:

"How is an Olympic dream born? Like an unwanted child. Far from the spotlight, beyond the dark mountains of the inside pages of the sports papers. At the bottom, on the left, next to an item about a quarrel between the stock-keeper and the masseur in the middle of a Jerusalem Betar internal practice game. Only a few people have heard or read that Alex Shatilov, a 20-year-old soldier from Herzliya, has finished in fifth place in the floor exercise finals at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championship competition held in Stuttgart. Shatilov will take this impressive achievement to Beijing, but it will not help gain real public exposure.

"He is a sports hero whose face has come to the attention of the general public, if at all, only because he has appeared in a catalog of gymnastics clothes and swimsuits, alongside a woman gymnast, a narrow-shouldered soccer player and a full-time model and trampolinist named Dean Martin, who swears that he has never heard of the friend of Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. In terms of Israeli sport, this is an important foothold - you model, therefore you exist - but it is a pity that his image has not won more inches in the sports sections as well.

"Ten months hence he will take to the mattress in China, and hopefully on that day the relationship between the water boy and the laundress at Jerusalem Betar will not erupt in a crisis."

In the end, this short column about Shatilov was not published. A day or two before the supplement went to press, a two-page spread about Shatilov was published in the sports section of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth ?(which thereafter appeared in a single-page format every week?). This week I thought about Shatilov again. I checked whether during the past 10 months another long item had been published about him, one that spreads over at least two newspaper pages or takes up a good few minutes of air time at attractive broadcast hours. The conclusion:

Shatilov has continued to be an unknown with a plane ticket to Beijing. It must be acknowledged that his middling achievements at the recent European championships have not contributed to increased media exposure for him. Nonetheless, even at his current level of fitness, Shatilov is one of the greatest hopes of the Israeli Olympic delegation for participation in an Olympic final and even - who knows? - for winning a medal.

The question is whether this is a certificate of honor for Shatilov, the only representative of a minor sport in Israel who has succeeded under his own steam in rising to the top internationally, or a certificate of shame for Israeli sport, which has not succeeded in giving rise to a reasonable number of more established Olympic heroes.

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