Arik Ze'evi's shoulders are as wide as one would expect of a 100-kilo judoka. Ze'evi has been European champion in his weight category for three of the past four years, and was a silver medalist at this year's world championship. His colleagues worship him, and the Israel Olympic Committee is counting on him for a medal, perhaps even Israel's first gold. The question is whether Ze'evi's shoulders are wide enough to carry all of these expectations.
Alex Ashkenazi and Ze'evi have been working together since 1997 with the exception of a two-year break in the middle. Ashkenazi was Ze'evi's coach at the Sydney Olympics, where Ze'evi finished a disappointing fifth. Ashkenazi is considered tough to work with, but for Ze'evi he is a guru, and the judoka is willing to follow him blindly.
Ashkenazi says that one of Ze'evi's problems is that he has short fingers that allow his opponents to shake free from his grip. "Because Arik doesn't have a strong grip, he needs a lot more moves, since he has to know how to throw his rival from every position. He is now considered one of the most technical fighters in the sport. If Ze'evi wins five bouts, all of them will end with a different move."
Ze'evi's concentration can also be a problem, Ashkenazi says. Ze'evi needs to gain greater self knowledge, and his concentration tends to ebb and flow, he adds. At this year's European championships in Paris, however, Ze'evi took himself aside and came onto the mat at a peak level of concentration to take the gold.
Ze'evi used to have a strength problem, but Ashkenazi says his charge no longer loses bouts because of strength. "Because he wasn't strong enough, he used to get injured a lot. On paper he is considered the strongest athlete in the sport after Kosie Inoue of Japan, but that's just on paper. Arik will win seven out of 10 bouts against an opponent one strength below him, but that still isn't 10-0, and one of the three bouts could fall in the Olympics," Ashkenazi says. "Arik doesn't lose fights on strength anymore, but he still doesn't break his rivals the way I want him to."
On the wall in the office of Israel Olympic Committee psychologist Boris Bloomstein hangs a picture of Ze'evi with a personal inscription from the judoka: "fast, calm, aggressive."
Ze'evi used to have a problem with aggressiveness and would pick up penalty points for passiveness, and that's where Bloomstein comes in. "In order to solve the problem, we built up a program specially for Ze'evi and put in a lot of hard work to deal with it," he say. That work can be summed up as "fast, calm, aggressive" - three words that have become Ze'evi's mantra during fights. "People ask how can you be calm and aggressive at the same time," adds Bloomstein. "In this instance, it means taking smart decisions." Ze'evi's affirmations during the bout keep him sharp, confident, concentrated and aggressive.
Bloomstein, together with Prof. Michael Bar-Eli, the head of behavioral sciences and methodology at the Wingate sports institute, have also developed a biofeedback device to which Ze'evi is hooked up while watching videos of his bouts, alternately practicing relaxation and aggressiveness, while Bloomstein trys to upset his concentration. Bloomstein also meets twice a week with Ze'evi in training, and works on aspects that Ashkenazi has pointed out.
Dr. Luba Galitskaya, the IOC's physician, is a woman living on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her fear is that one of the athletes due to take part in the Athens Olympics will suffer an injury and miss the Games. Galitskaya says she wishes she could wrap Ze'evi in cotton wool and keep him protected until Athens.
Ze'evi came out of training with a deep scratch on Sunday. Galitskaya missed a heart beat. "If I were to pick up a scratch like that I would be fine, but the problem is that at such a high level of sport, the immune system is affected, and any wound can lead to infections."
Galitskaya has a file on every Olympic athlete, but Ze'evi's is bigger than most. "Competing at such a high level, Arik has a lot of medical problems. I don't even want to talk about his orthopedic problems, because he has so many. He's had every type of injury. Judo is a combat sport; there isn't much you can do about that."