Israels Olympic squad aims to fill newfound hopes

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JERUSALEM — Israel's first two Olympic medals, gleaned at the 1992 Barcelona games, left citizens of the Jewish state slightly dazed and greedy for more.

And after months of injuries, exhausting training and nervous anticipation, the national delegation to Atlanta was announced.

The Elite Sport Unit had to meet criteria more stringent than international rules, and there is already talk that for the Sydney, Australia, games in 2000, the team may adopt the international rules.

Thirty Israeli athletes trekked to Barcelona; 26 are bound for Atlanta.

Although sports officials are desperate to downplay both expectations and pressure on the athletes, everyone wonders who will bring home medals.

Sharing center stage are four protagonists: Yael Arad, Oren Smadja, Gocha Chichiashvili and Gal Friedman.

Arad — who at 25, in Barcelona, thrilled Israel by winning a silver medal in the 61-kilogram judo category — bears little resemblance to the Arad en route to Atlanta today. Now 29, married, having suffered a spate of injuries, Arad has slipped in her position as role model for Israeli youth. This will be her last Olympic competition.

Arad has enormous mental resources and is tremendously motivated, but what of her recent results? She has missed more tournaments than she attended, citing injury.

At last year's world championships, Arad finished fifth after losing to France's Catherine Fleury, who was her nemesis from the Barcelona final.

Judo bronze medalist Smadja, from the town of Ofakim, has played supporting actor to Arad's lead over the past four years but may very well come into his own at Atlanta.

Now competing in the 78-kilogram category, 26-year-old Smadja is at his peak and talks openly about his medal chances.

Putting his well-known romantic liaisons and disputes with coach Moshe Ponti aside, Smadja has now matured, with a reputation for delivering the goods. Last year, he won the silver medal at the World Championships in Japan.

Smadja's main opposition in Atlanta will be Japan's Koga, the world and Olympic champion, who, like Smadja, has moved up to 78 kilograms from 71.

Wrestler Chichiashvili, 22, is a serious contender for a medal in the Greco-Roman class.

He won a silver medal at the 1995 World Championships, and this year he placed third at the European Championships.

Recognizing his potential, sports officials met Chichiashvili's requests for an apartment in Beersheva. He trains often in the former Soviet Union and will enjoy the unprecedented luxury of having two coaches with him in Atlanta.

With his rigorous schedule, the 82-kilogram native of the former Soviet Georgia could be the first immigrant to join the Olympic medal club.

At 21, windsurfer Friedman made headlines when he usurped the title of "King of the Waves" from Amit Inbar, who had competed in Barcelona and was the favorite for Atlanta's single windsurfing ticket. Friedman quietly eroded Inbar's advantage, winning silver medals at the World Championships both this year and last.

If Friedman — whose first name means "wave" — can keep his concentration while competing against Greece's Nikos Kaklamakis and New Zealand's Bruce Kendall and Aaron McIntosh, he could also be in line for Olympic laurels.

Until last month, Israel's participation in the athletics event seemed largely symbolic. Then high-jumper Constantin Matusevich sailed over the bar at 2.34 meters, five centimeters better than his own outdoor national record, and the picture suddenly looked brighter.

In the pole vault, Dani Krasnov, the national record holder at 5.75 meters, and Constantin Simionev (5.70 meters) will both compete in the same track event for the first time. While this adds prestige to the Israeli team, neither poses a serious threat to Ukrainian Sergei Bubka, who reigns supreme with a world record of 6.14 meters.

Triple-jumper Rogel Nahum failed to make the Barcelona final but, having overcome his injuries and regained his form, he could place in the final 12 alongside his friend and world champion Jonathan Edwards from England.

Last year, Nahum finished 11th in the World Championships in Sweden. He holds the Israeli record at 17.20 meters, which does not really compare with Edwards' remarkable 18.29 meters.

Israel's swimming team, led by Yoav Bruck, seized headlines earlier this year in Europe's World Cup competition, where Bruck smashed 10 national records.

Bruck will compete in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races (where his best times are 22.16 seconds and 50.59 seconds respectively) against Russia's peerless Alexander Popov (48.21 seconds in the 100-meter).

Bruck will anchor the 100×4 individual medley together with 19-year-old Eytan Orbach (backstroke), Vadim Alexsev (breast stroke) and former Bay Area resident Dan Kutler (butterfly).

An acute pelvic injury kept Alexsev on land from February until last month.

Another off-chance for stardom is shooter Boris Polak, at 42 the oldest figure on the squad. Polak was the world champion in the air-rifle category in 1994 and in the last two years, finished fourth in the World Cup competition.

Alex Tripolski and Guy Starick make up the shooting trio, but few expectations are predicted for them.

Besides Friedman, the maritime contingent also includes the Chantal brothers, Nir and Ran, who sail in the Olympic-470 division and have maintained a reputable, if not dazzling, place among the upper echelon of the world's sailors, including a bronze medal this year at the world championships.

Anat Fabrikant and Shani Kedmi are the female representatives in the same class whose eighth-place finish among 146 entries in last year's European Nations Championships surprised many.

Spearheading the foil-fencing crew is Lydia Hatoel Zuckerman, 33. This marks her third and final Olympic visit. Improving with age and motherhood, Zuckerman is currently enjoying her highest-ever world ranking, at 11th.

The women fencers will make their Olympic debut. Alongside Zuckerman will be Ayelet Ohayon, Ira Slivotsky and Lilach Parisky.

Ohayon ended eighth in the final of the World Cup this year, which moved her to 25th in the world rankings.

Israel is sending sole representatives for weightlifting, boxing and kayaking. Vacislav Ivanovsky, 21, has recently attracted more headlines for his refusal to undergo drug tests than for his weightlifting. He won a silver medal from the European Championships this year.

Boxer Vacislav Neiman's success includes a bronze medal at the European Championships in 1993.

Lior Carmi was the last athlete to creep in via the back door after the Olympic list was apparently signed and sealed, though her kayaking achievements have been consistent and this year netted second place in the World Cup tournament.

Rounding out the delegation are Israel National Olympic Committee president Yoram Oberkowitz, INOC director-general Efraim Zinger and secretary Zvi Warshiak. Alex Giladi is Israel's sole representative on the International Olympic Committee.