After Early Woes, Israel Pins Hopes on Judoka Arik Ze'evi

BEIJING - With its early medal favorites eliminated from competition, Israel's hopes for Olympic glory are falling squarely on the broad shoulders of judoka Arik Ze'evi, who begins competition today.

Tennis players Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have been ousted, as has the men's sailing team of Udi Gal and Gal Kliger.

Gal Zubari is leading his windsurfing competition, and the women's sailing team of Vered Bouskila and Nike Kornecki retains 4th place in theirs, but Ze'evi is the one who has ever experienced the thrill of standing on the winner's podium.

In the 2004 Athens Games, in which windsurfer Gal Fridman brought Israel its first ever gold, Ze'evi took bronze in the men's 100kg event. In the 2000 Olympics, he placed fifth.

He is one of Israel's top international athletes, winning the 2000, 2003, and 2004 European Championships, placing second in 2005 and third this year. He also came in second at the 2001 World Championships.

The Bnei Brak native is well aware of expectations at home.

On arriving in Beijing, he virtually locked himself in the Olympic Village, refusing to talk to the media until yesterday.

"On a given day, anything can happen - that includes a medal, as well as an early loss," he said.

The judoka drew difficult opening adversaries, but he remains unfazed.

"To win a medal you need to defeat tough opponents. It doesn't really matter if that's at the end or at the beginning," he said.

His first bout is against Frenchman Frederic Demontfaucon, the 2001 world champion who placed second in last year's European Championships and took bronze in Athens.

If he advances, he will face current world champion Luciano Correa, unless the Brazilian goes down in his first match against Dutchman Henk Grol.

Even a loss, however, would not eliminate Ze'evi from contention, but would land him in the repechage, or consolation bracket, giving him another chance at a medal. Ze'evi fought his way to bronze at Athens by that route.

Still, he knows that many people in Israel consider anything less than a medal to be a failure.

Nor will Ze'evi's path this year be as smooth as the one he encountered at the last Olympics. In Athens, he was considered one of the world's top three judoka. This year, he is viewed as only one of the top 10.

A shoulder injury in 2005 kept him from contending for the world title that year in Cairo. After surgery, his shoulder only healed a year ago.

At 31, Ze'evi knows that his third Olympic attempt will likely be his last.

He also knows he is carrying with him not only the support, but the hope, of an entire country.

Ze'evi's first match begins at 7 A.M. Israel time.

Zubari sails on

Windsurfer Shahar Zubari returns to competition today, leading his Neil Pryde RS:X event by 8 points after four races

Veteran rifleman Guy Starik, considered a long-shot for a medal, begins competition today in the 50m prone event.

This is the fourth Olympiad for the 43-year-old, who was European champion in 2005. Gil Simkovitch also begins his shooting events today.