Israelis celebrate after windsurfer earns countrys first Olympic gold medal

tel aviv | Television and radio stations in Israel cut away from their midday programming. News Web sites were updated faster than even the nimblest of fingers could press “refresh.”

It wasn’t another terrorist attack in Israel, but some good news for a change: On Wednesday, Aug. 25, the Jewish state entered the fraternity of Olympic gold-medal winners.

“I felt as though the whole country was pushing me from behind,” Gal Fridman told reporters after he took the top score following the last windsurfing race at the 2004 Athens Games.

It was the first gold medal taken by an Israeli since the country began participating in the Games in 1952.

In the Athens stadium, the Israeli flag rose to the sound of “Hatikvah” rising from the blended voices of hundreds of Israelis waving blue and white flags, just minutes after Fridman was honored.

The Israeli flag was flanked by the Greek and British flags for Nikos Kaklamanakis and Nick Dempsey, who finished second and third consecutively.

The medal was Israel’s sixth overall, and the second of Fridman’s career: He won a bronze at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“Our No. 1!” announced the Web site of Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yediot Achronot, in its caption to a picture of Fridman, 28, on his board at the end of the race.

President Moshe Katsav congratulated Fridman on his achievement — and judo competitor Arik Ze’evi, who earlier won a bronze medal in Athens, expressed a pride felt throughout Israel.

“Like all Israelis, I was delighted to hear ‘Hatikvah’ and see the flag raised. I did not manage to get the gold, but I am glad he did,” Ze’evi told Channel 10 television.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Fridman to congratulate him in a phone call carried live by Israeli media.

“It was a joy to see you win and raise the Israeli flag,” Sharon said. “The confidence and composure you evinced throughout the competition were extraordinary and earned you an honorary place in the chronicles of Israeli and international sport. You really are a grand sportsman, and the whole country rejoices with you today, and is proud of you — very, very proud of you.”

As the news of Fridman’s triumph spread in Israel, so did a sense of satisfaction.

“It’s about time,” said Dedi Cohen, a Tel Aviv lawyer whose office spent much of the day watching live television coverage of the race. “Any sport that has Israeli involvement is of interest, but to get the gold is a matter of pride for Israel and Jews worldwide.”

Fridman sailed consistently at Athens, never finishing lower than eighth in the 11-race event. After the final race, he jumped into the water and then draped himself in the flag.

Fridman’s family watched the race from their home in Karkur, surrounded by press. His parents, Dganit and Uri, clutched a Book of Psalms.

“I don’t have my glasses to read psalms, but it’s enough to keep it close to our hearts,” Uri Fridman said.

Uri Fridman said he trained his son from age 6.

“I took him out first in boats, then on a surfboard, then on a windsurfer. I would throw him into the water and pull him out again,” he said.

Fridman’s biggest fan, ironically, said she was one of the few who did not see him win.

“I was too nervous to watch,” said the windsurfer’s mother, Dganit. She had spent much of the week holding two thumbs-up in what she described to Israeli media as a good-luck gesture for Gal, which is Hebrew for “wave.”

On a somber note, Fridman said he would dedicate his medal to the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games.

“I’m sure they’re watching us,” he said. “And I’m sure their families in Israel will be very happy.’

The Jerusalem Post Service contributed to this report.