Windsurfer wins Israel's first gold

Updated: August 25, 2004, 5:05 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The Israeli national anthem sounded over an Olympic podium Wednesday for the first time in the Jewish state's 56-year history after a young man whose father named him for the sea took the gold medal in windsurfing.

Gal Fridman
Before Gal Fridman's gold, Israel had won only one silver and two bronze medals in 12 previous Olympics dating to 1952.
As the last notes sounded, exuberant Israelis mobbed the podium, embracing Gal Fridman and snapping photographs of the gold medal draped around his neck. Frantic security officials were unable to hold them back.

"Every Olympics we dream of hearing the anthem and seeing the flag. It's the top," Fridman said, the victor's wreath on his head. "I was feeling very proud and so happy to hear the people singing it. I sang as strong as I could, but nobody heard it because everybody was screaming."

Israel entered the games in 1952, but its Olympic history is marked more by terrorist attacks and political demonstrations than by sports achievements and medals. At the 1972 Munich games, 11 athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Fridman's win provided a more positive Olympic image: that of a winner. He secured the gold with a second-place finish in Wednesday's decisive race, giving him the best overall performance in the 11-stage competition.

Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, the Greek who lit the Olympic flame during the games' opening ceremony, took the silver and Briton Nick Dempsey took the bronze.

Israel erupted in celebration, desperate for good news after four years of bloodshed. Israeli President Moshe Katsav called to offer congratulations and invite Fridman for a visit, saying he wanted to give him a hug. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called as well.

Fridman promised to take his gold medal to the memorial in Tel Aviv for those killed in Munich, to "give respect for the people who were in front of me and killed while they tried to represent my country."

Fridman's father, Uri, has long been a fan of water sports. On Sept. 16, 1975, his first son was born, and he named him Gal, which means "wave" in Hebrew. To his second son, he gave the name Yuval -- "creek" -- and his daughter is Mayan -- "spring."

Gal Fridman began sailing at age 7, and soon his father was coaching him. He entered his first competition when he was only 11, and won a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

But even for Fridman's father and former coach, the gold-medal win felt unreal.

"It's very, very hard to believe that he succeeded in doing this," said Uri Fridman, who watched Wednesday's race from the Fridman family house in central Israel. Soon after the finish, it was filled with cheering friends and relatives.

"There is gold," Uri Fridman said, sipping from a bottle of champagne. "There is gold. This is fantastic."

Yaron Micaeli, spokesman for the Israeli delegation in Athens, said more organized celebrations would wait until Fridman returns home. But it was clear he was ecstatic.

"We have a gold medal," Micaeli said. "What can be more than that?"

Fridman celebrated his win with a victory dip in the Saronic Gulf before wrapping himself in a blue-and-white Israeli flag. At the medals ceremony, fans waved Israeli flags and chanted: "Israel ole ole!" when he walked in, wraparound sunglasses perched atop his head.

Fans hugged one another as Fridman held his medal high, and sang along with him as the national anthem was played.

"It's like the best thing that could happen," said Eli Moskowitz, a 28-year-old gym teacher who traveled from Rehovot, Israel, to see the race. "In Israel we don't have so many moments like this. Any reason is a good reason for celebration."

Israel won its first medal in 1992, and had won one silver and three bronzes -- including Fridman's -- before coming to Athens. It won another bronze in judo last week.

Two other members of Fridman's sailing club had a chance to win a medal in doubles at Seoul in 1988, ranking second heading into the final day of competition. But they didn't compete because it was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the year for Jews.

A Palestinian delegation is in Athens under its own flag. A swimmer and a runner competed, but both finished last in their qualifying rounds. The war has complicated travel, depleted funds and destroyed training facilities, making it difficult for them to train.

"The true value of a country is measured not by the number or the color of its Olympic medals," said Mustafa el-Ajouz, spokesman for the Palestinian Embassy in Athens. "It is measured by its respect and adherence to the Olympic and human ideals of brotherhood, equality, friendship and peace."

Fridman said he wasn't a fan of politics, but that he hoped that his achievement could help bring peace to the country.

"I want ... that the fight stop in the water," he said. "If you want to fight someone, fight him in sports and see who is better."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press