Rifleman may have Israels best shot at hitting Olympic gold

jerusalem | After years of sending its top athletes to the Olympics with no real hope of winning a medal, the Olympic Committee of Israel is a lot more hopeful about this summer’s games in Athens.

The committee’s stated goal is threefold: to have one-third of the 36 Israelis competing reach their events’ finals, that two or three be medal winners, and to capture Israel’s first Olympic gold.

The medal contenders are familiar to many Israelis — thanks to a series of world championships (Lee Korzitz in sailing and Gocha Tsitsiashvili in wrestling), European championships (Arik Ze’evi in judo and Alex Averbuch in pole vaulting), and Olympic medals (Gal Friedman in sailing and Michael Kolganov in kayaking) in recent years.

But there’s also a dark-horse favorite in the bunch, who commands much respect in Europe but is barely mentioned in Israel: shooter Guy Starik.

The 39-year-old, who will be competing in his third Olympics, is ranked second in the world in his discipline, the 150-foot rifle prone, by the International Shooting Sport Federation. And, by his own admission, he may have a serious advantage over a large number of his competitors: competence shooting in the wind. If, as is common in Athens in the summer, the wind is blowing strong on Aug. 20, the day Starik is to compete, as many as half the shooters will be at a severe disadvantage.

“The wind is good for the experienced shooters. … It’s the art of the sport,” he explains.

And Starik, who took up the sport 27 years ago, is one of the most experienced in the field. He also promises that he has at least another four years left in him, already aiming for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

There are two reasons why the rifleman is at his best at an age when so many other athletes are considered past their prime: He loves what he does and competes in a sport where athletes only enter their prime in their 30s.

Plus, he continues, shooting is a sport where you “reach your mental maturity after age 30,” pointing out that his good friend and medalist from the Sydney Games, Norwegian Harald Stenvaag, is 51 and still going strong.

During a practice shoot recently at the Olympic Shooting Range in Herzliya, Starik used just more than half of his allotted time to finish with 598 points, two shy of a perfect score. When asked if his practice score would be enough to earn him a spot in the Olympic finals, he answers, “It would put me among the top three.”

But neither Starik nor his coach will allow themselves to be overly excited by his impressive practice result on a windy day. “It’s easy to achieve these scores while training,” he says, admitting that he’s shot a perfect 600 numerous times in training, although only eight people have achieved the perfect score in competition — and he is not one of them. Starik’s best is 599.