QINDAO, China - Flashing a victory sign, Shahar Zubari crossed the finish line in the men's RS:X windsurfing final third to secure a bronze medal in the event. The young windsurfer thus ensured that Israel would claim at least one medal for the fifth consecutive Olylmpics.
"I counted surfboards and knew I had a medal," he said after the race. However, he still had to wait for the others to know what he had won, if anything. New Zealand's Tom Ashley took the gold medal, while France's Julien Bontemps came next to take silver. When Aichen Wang of China crossed the finish line, the Israelis present could breath a sigh of relief and celebrate. Zubari had slipped in front of Britain's Nick Dempsey for the bronze medal.
There's no telling what was going on in Wang's mind, but half a minute after he finished the race, a group of Israelis came up to shake his hand.
At the medal ceremony, the Israeli stand was filled with blue and white flags. Nufar Edelman went wild. Vered Buskila and Nike Kornitzky were waving flags, too, and even Gidi Kliger, who had turned inward after his embarrassing appearance with Udi Gal, showed up. But it was a small crowd. His parents, Ze'ev and Vered, stayed behind in Israel. They are used to following his races from afar via the Internet, and in yesterday's rare case, on television.
Ma'ayan Davidovich, however, was still in the water. She first finished her medal race in the women's RS:X, placing seventh, which kept her in 10th place in the overall standings. Zubari's race got of to a disastrous start. He lunged out into the water, but stopped, returned, made a circle in place and then went back out, trailing the rest.
"My heart sank," said Rafa Balilus, Zubari's coach. "But his surfing was explosive, and he closed the gap before the first buoy."
Zubari explained later, "I saw a penalty flag and wasn't sure if I had committed a foul or not, but I knew in these conditions I can close the gap because it's my kind of wind."
Weak winds prevail most of the time in Qindao. They picked up in the warm afternoon yesterday but then dropped off again before the women's race. Zubari rules in weak winds.
The surprise of the competition, Zubari proved his ability in that first leg of the race. Following these races is tricky, because each surfer is going in a different direction, trying to catch a suitable wind, but it was clear Zubari was in the right direction. By the first buoy he was only trailing King Yin Chang of Hong Kong, with Ashley and Bontemps trailing him.
Dempsey, meanwhile, was lagging behind in seventh place, which would be his undoing in the end. The British surfer had a similar letdown in Athens, when he was leading the table going into the final race but let Gal Fridman slip past him and had to settle for bronze. "By the first buoy I knew I was trailing and would find it hard to close the gap," Dempsey said later, keeping a stiff, British upper lip.
After winning the medal, Zubari was inundated with phone calls - from his parents, from Israel Radio, friends, the local paper in Eilat, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and even from Israeli President Shimon Peres. "You brought a new dawn to the State of Israel," said Peres, playing on the meaning of his Hebrew name, Shahar. "Israel was almost mourning in a sea of despair."
Zubari responded, "I'm glad I made the whole country proud, and the truth is I want to come back to Israel."
But it's not that simple. Yehuda Maayan, chairman of the Olympic Committee of Israel, announced after the race that he would be putting Zubari on a plane home immediately with the rest of the delegation. However, Zubari is now the pride of the Israel's Olympic delegation. And, with Alex Averbuch yesterday ruled out, no one was left to carry the Israeli flag at the closing ceremony. So, Maayan gave in, and Zubari will travel to Beijing.
But first he has to get through all the interviews, giving variations of the same answer to the same questions. "I was excited at the finish line, I looked back after I crossed and counted the surfboards, I relied on myself, I'm happy I did it," he said. He cut off the interviews to take a drug test.
He later emerged for the medal ceremony. The women received their medals first, and half the city was there because the winner was China's own Jian Yin. When the men's turn came, Zubari was first up on the winner's podium. He received his medal from Alex Giladi, the first Israeli to be elected to the International Olympic Committee. He then waved to the crowd, looking for the first time a little shocked.
After the ceremony the first two questions directed to Ashley and Bontemps concerned "Mr. Zubari," as the Chinese reporters refer to the Israeli. Ashley responded that he knew Zubari was good and kept an eye on him. Bontemps added that they knew that an eight-point advantage was nothing for Zubari.
As for Zubari, by the time the interviews wrapped up around 6:30 P.M. he realized he hadn't eaten all day. Soon he was off to a local restaurant with the delegation. "A weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was a long 10 days. But I got a medal. I did it."