By Mark Mietkiewicz
When you picture Israelis facing off against elite international competitors, you might think of sports like judo or windsurfing or chess. But how about figure skating or downhill skiing? That’s what they’ll be doing when the world’s finest meet at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi for the next two weeks.
Although this is the sixth Israeli delegation to the winter games, they must be used to being overshadowed by their higher profile summer counterparts. Even Israel’s official Olympic website barely mentions them. [http://bit.ly/isrolym13]
Israel first sent a winter delegation (of one) to the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway where skater Michael Shmerkin finished a respectable 16th. At Nagano, Japan in 1998, Shmerkin was joined by ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski. The pair would return to compete twice more finishing as high as sixth in Salt Lake City in 2002. [bit.ly/isrolym41]
The Israeli contingent grew to five in Salt Lake City when Israel first competed in short track speed skating with Olga Danilov. Many familiar names were back In Turin, Italy in 2006, where Chait danced with Sakhnovski, and Alexandra Zaretsky paired off with her brother Roman. That year Israel was first represented off the ice rink by alpine skier, Ukrainian oleh (new immigrant) Mikail Renzhyn. [bit.ly/isrolym03] But once again, no medals.
The team was scaled back to three (the Zaretskys and Renzhyn) for Vancouver in 2010. Although figure skater Tamar Katz qualified according to Olympic standards, the Israeli Olympic Committee wanted to put its weight behind athletes it thought had a greater chance of reaching the podium. So Katz was iced.
Boris Chait, chairman of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, was none too pleased. He told the New York Times, “… I’m trying to explain that these people are ambassadors. We’ve been to countries where people come up and say: ‘We didn’t know you Israelis knew how to skate. We thought you only knew how to shoot.’ … Israel is not like Germany or the United States, where they can be choosy. They have hundreds of athletes, all capable of winning medals.” [bit.ly/isrolym04] Despite the selective strategy, Israel was shut out again.
This year, Israel’s contingent is back to five, all Olympic newcomers: alpine skier Virgile Vandeput, men’s figure skater Alexei Bychenko, pairs Andrea Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnoposki, and short track speed skater, Vladislav Bykanov. [bit.ly/isrolym20]
Like most of their predecessors, Israel’s top winter athletes train in the U.S. That can be controversial but the competitors say they need to be there for the facilities and the coaching. “We may train in the U.S. most of the time, but we grew up in Metula and we are proud to be Israeli,” Roman Zaretsky told the Jerusalem Post in 2010. “We chose to skate with the music of Hava Nagila and Schindler’s List for a reason. We want to make Israel proud and show the world that we are here.” [bit.ly/isrolym15]
Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is joining other world leaders in giving the Sochi games a wide berth, the resort town is rolling out the welcome mat for Jewish visitors – well, at least Ari and Chani Edelkopf are. Rabbi Edelkopf is director of Sochi’s Jewish community of about 3,000. The Edelkopfs run the local Chabad, which has been gearing up for the influx of Jewish tourists by renovating their shul and acquiring a new Torah scroll. [bit.ly/isrolym18]
Realistically, none of the Israeli athletes to Sochi is expected to come home with gold (or silver or bronze). That may take a bit of time. After all, it took 40 years of competition until Israel won silver and bronze at the 1992 summer games. And it wasn’t until 2004 in Athens that Hatikvah was played as an emotional Gal Fridman was awarded gold for his incredible achievement in windsurfing. [bit.ly/isrolym19]
Hopefully, it won’t take Israel’s winter elite quite as long.
Mark Mietkiewicz writes about the internet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.