Israelis give returning Olympians a heros welcome

tel aviv | Doused with champagne and confetti and greeted with loudspeakers blasting “We Are the Champions,” the Israeli Olympic team received a hero’s welcome home.

The celebrations at Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday, Aug. 30, capped an emotional two weeks of Israeli attention focused on the Games in Athens. Any disappointments were overshadowed by the triumph of Gal Fridman’s gold in windsurfing and Arik Ze’evi’s bronze in judo.

“I am honored to be the first Israeli athlete to bring home an Olympic gold, and I hope there will be many more to follow,” Fridman told the roaring crowd. “Remember, there is no such thing as impossible. It’s wonderful that the gold medal made everyone so happy.”

The Israelis’ triumphs were only two of more than a dozen medals won by Jewish athletes at the Games, including two golds earned by Chile’s Nicolas Massu in tennis and several more medals by U.S. Jewish swimmers.

Athletes winning medals wasn’t the only Jewish story, however. An Iranian athlete, Arash Miresmaeli, made international headlines after he refused to fight an Israeli competitor, Ehud Vaks, in judo.

But in Israel, a country hungry for good news, the medals were the main story from this year’s Games.

Newspapers published commemorative posters of Fridman, a victory laurel on his head, kissing his gold medal. Billboards were posted over major roads saying “Gal Fridman, You Made the Country Proud.” Rabbis spoke of Fridman in their Shabbat sermons.

Ze’evi won the bronze in the under 100-kg category. His face is now also seen plastered in advertising posters across the country, as Israeli companies scramble to use these new Israeli sports heroes to sell their products.

Upon his return to Israel, Ze’evi said Fridman’s gold should motivate younger Israelis to push sports further ahead, and urged more corporations to get involved in helping sponsor athletes, not just in the country’s favorite sports like soccer and basketball.

Education Minister Limor Livnat was among the crowd of fans with Olympic fever at the airport.

“I want to thank each and every one of the sports men and women,” Livnat said. Referring to the elite Israeli army unit, he said, “You are our sporting equivalent of the Sayeret Matkal, both those who won medals, those who reached finals, and those who didn’t. For us, you are all champions.”

None of the Israeli athletes from the former Soviet Union touted as possible medal hopefuls made it to the podium. Among the disappointed athletes was pole vaulter Alex Averbukh, who won the European championship in 2002 and reached the finals only to falter at crunch time. The Siberian-born Averbukh blamed his performance, in part, on what he said was overly intense media pressure to return with a medal.

Michael Kalganov, a kayaker who immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan and won Israel a bronze in Sydney, faired poorly in Athens, although Roei Yellin, another Israeli kayaker, did make the finals.

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union who exceeded expectations at the Games included Larisa Pesakovitch, a kayaker who placed sixth in her final. It was Israel’s best-ever performance at the event. Gymnast Pavel Gofman also performed beyond expectations when he made the final in men’s all-around gymnastics.

The failures led to some soul-searching. Ron Koffman wrote in Ha’aretz that more Olympic success depends upon additional government support for athletes. He wrote: “The question is what does the future hold in store for the sport in Israel. Does it plan to invest in the sport, to develop gymnasts or to import gymnasts? One thing is certain, the discipline cannot continue to be carried on one man’s shoulders.”