Israel has won four medals in 12 Olympics

Updated: August 25, 2004, 7:48 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- An extra fence protects Israel's Olympic Village compound, and the Shin Bet secret service watches over it. But the Israelis here have something besides security on their minds -- a fervent hope for the country's first-ever gold medal and the chance, at last, to hear their national anthem played in triumph at the Summer Games.

The anthem is "Hatikvah" -- The Hope -- and Israeli fans sang it spontaneously last week when Ariel Zeevi won a bronze medal in judo.

"Now we want to hear it officially," said delegation chief Efraim Zinger who, like countless compatriots, is pulling for windsurfer Gal Fridman to move from second place to first in the event's climactic race Wednesday.

The pressure on top Israeli Olympians can be intense, with fans at home yearning for their success as a way of countering the often contentious news about their country. Zeevi, after winning his bronze-medal match, said he had been under tremendous stress and called it "the hardest day of my life."

Said Yehuda Mayan, who heads the windsurfing team, "Israel is a small country. ... People in the north and south of the country know every athlete, not like in the United States where they have so many athletes and so many medals."

In 12 previous Olympics, dating to 1952, Israel had won only one silver and three bronze medals. Its Olympic legacy is primarily somber -- political complications, occasional snubs by athletes from Islamic countries and, overshadowing all else, the killing of 11 athletes and coaches who were seized by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September at the 1972 Games in Munich.

Zinger, director general of the Olympic Committee of Israel, said his athletes savor the competition and conviviality of the games as much as any of their counterparts -- and yet are different.

"There are no special restrictions on our team -- they can go wherever they want in the village, in the city," he said. "They are athletes like everybody else, but at the same time -- in the backs of our minds -- we remember Munich. We know, not as athletes but as Israelis, that there are certain people who are looking for us."

Each Olympiad, the Israeli team pays a group visit to a memorial in Tel Aviv honoring the slain athletes before heading off to the competition. During each Olympics, there is a memorial service -- this year's was attended by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, something his long-serving predecessor Juan Antonio Samaranch did not do while IOC chief.

"It was not just that an IOC president came, but the way he spoke," Zinger said. "He was talking to the athletes as brothers."

Rogge, who competed at Munich with the Belgian sailing team, told those at the service that the IOC was "expressing its greatest and most solemn homage to your husband and our brothers."

Despite knowing they might be a target, team members are not forbidden from venturing out wearing clothes with Israeli logos. In fact, Zinger said he and a colleague wore Israeli shirts into central Athens, and were besieged by people asking for Israeli team pins.

"The delegation brought more than 1,000 pins, and they're all gone," Zinger said. "It seems we're quite popular."

The only unwelcome incident so far, aside from athletic setbacks, was an apparent snub by Iran's top judo competitor, Arash Miresmaeili, who showed up overweight for his bout after reportedly saying he wouldn't fight Israel's Ehud Yaks. Iran does not recognize Israel, and several of its athletes have refused to compete against Israelis before.

Zinger said he was disappointed when the International Judo Federation declined to penalize Miresmaeili, and urged sports authorities to crack down on such snubs as vigorously as they do illegal drug use.

"It will snowball," he said. "Next time it could be a Syrian refusing to compete against an American."

Israel brought 36 athletes to the Athens Games, a smaller squad than for some past Olympics in part because of its failure to qualify for any team sports.

Zinger said 45 percent of the squad members are women, and 45 percent were born outside Israel. But all of those immigrants moved to Israel by their teens and developed their sporting skills there, often under the tutelage of coaches who came from the former Soviet Union, he said.

Zinger noted that Israel's previous medalists included a woman raised in a wealthy Tel Aviv neighborhood and the son of a Moroccan immigrant who grew up in the desert of southern Israel.

"In Israel, where we're still dealing with some basic questions about our own existence, sport can help bring people together," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press