Ex-Soviet athletes carry Israeli hopes to Athens Games

wingate sports center, Israel | Katya Pisetsky’s legs extend into a backhand walkover. Then she spins in a circle, tosses a pair of clubs 30 feet in the air, catches them, glides into a final, triumphant pose and flashes an electric smile.

The Latin-style background music stops and the rhythmic gymnast’s smile melts instantly into a frown.

Pisetsky, 18, is going to the Olympics this month, and her coach, Natasha Asmolov, is berating her in a mixture of Russian and Hebrew for not extending her arm far enough, for not holding her back straight enough, for not feeling the music enough.

Watching from a nearby wooden bench are Pisetsky’s ballet trainer and sports psychologist, who also have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Immigrant athletes from the former Soviet Union make up about half of the team Israel is sending to the Athens Games, bolstering the country’s Olympic hopes and the Israeli identity of the newcomers. The Games begin with ceremonies on Friday, Aug. 13.

Like the athletes, many of the coaches and the medical staff are also immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“Immigrants from Russia have given sports an amazing boost because so many of them are already professionals in their field,” says Asmolov, 43.

There are 36 Israeli athletes on the Olympic team, 15 of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are also two marathon runners who are immigrants from Ethiopia — the first time Ethiopian immigrants have been represented on the Israeli Olympic team. Israelis are competing in 11 events: track and field, judo, wrestling, tae kwon do, tennis, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, kayaking, swimming, windsurfing and target shooting.

Since March the immigrant athletes on the Olympic team have been receiving a monthly stipend of $1,500 from the Jewish Agency for Israel to help support them financially while they train. The stipend will continue through December.

The Jewish Agency has been raising funds for the project together with the United Jewish Communities.

Some of the best prospects for an Israeli medal rest with Pisetsky’s fellow athletes from the former Soviet Union: Canoeist/kayaker Michael Kolganov, who won the bronze in 2000 in Sydney, will again be competing, as will wrestler Gocha Tsitsiashvili, who has won a world championship, and Alex Averbuch, a pole vaulter who has won a European championship.

Asmolov trains Pisetsky with the same stringent methods Asmolov grew up on in Belarus, where she competed as part of the national team.

The pair work together about eight hours a day, with a focus on exacting precision and discipline.

Stretching out after her morning practice, Pisetsky, whose shoulder-length blond hair is tied back into a ponytail, says that the most exciting moment of her life was landing in Israel for the first time from her native Ukraine. She arrived in 2001,

The second-most exciting moment, she says, was placing 10th in the European Rhythmic Gymnastic Championships in Kiev, where she qualified to compete for Israel at the Athens Olympics.

Efraim Zinger, the head of the Israeli Olympic Committee, says athletics are proving to be an excellent way for immigrants and native-born Israelis to get to know each other.

“Top athletes become role models both to native-born Israelis and Russians,” Zinger says. “Sports is an excellent vehicle to help the process of absorption into Israel.”

Zinger also noted that many of the immigrant athletes did not come to Israel as ready-made world-class athletes, but have benefited from expert training — often from fellow immigrant coaches.


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