Jewish Athletes Put Their Nations on the Map at the Olympics

By Aimee Berg

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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One of the most indelible images of the Athens Olympics was the Israeli flag being raised for the first time to the strains of “HaTikva,” a song that has been as haunting and evocative of sadness as it has been reminiscent of moments of happiness. On August 25, it was raised for Gal Fridman, a sailboarder who embraced the wind to capture Israel’s first Olympic gold medal. As the flag was being lifted in song so loud that it drowned out his own voice, Fridman stood on the highest level of the podium as a symbol, representing more than flag and family. He represented a people and a past.

Fridman hadn’t been born when the 11 Israeli athletes and officials were massacred during the Munich Olympics, yet he will bring his medal to the memorial in Tel Aviv as a poignant reminder of the dream they all shared. It is a rare moment when a man is able to seal his place in history as Fridman did (as Israel’s first gold medalist and first multiple medalist, as well — he won bronze in 1996), and melt it into the past at the same time.

There were at least two other unforgettable and symbolic moments that may not have resonated as profoundly, but were no less inspiring for Jewish viewers. One was in tennis and the other was in the women’s marathon.

Chile, like Israel, never had won an Olympic gold medal entering Athens. Yet in less than 24 hours, it won two of them in the same sport, thanks to Nicolas Massu, whose mother is Jewish. In men’s doubles, Massu and Fernando Gonzalez defeated four teams to reach the final, including the top seed, Mike and Bob Bryan of the United States. One set away from being relegated to silver, the Chileans rebounded to defeat Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler of Germany, 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. Less than 24 hours later and on just four hours of sleep, the 10th seeded Massu dispatched American Mardy Fish to win gold in the men’s singles in a four-hour come-from-behind battle, 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The day that Massu began to make his mark on Olympic tennis, Jewish American marathoner Deena Kastor retraced the legendary path of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. She ran wisely through 95-degree heat and over staggering hills to overtake 12 runners in the last half of the race. She was not the first woman to enter the stadium, yet she was awash in tears of joy. Her bronze was the first medal for an American marathoner in 20 years. Like Fridman and Massu, she put a nation and a heritage on the map, where it was perhaps least expected. Later she would describe the day’s journey as both “spiritual” and “a brutal march.”

In Athens, Jewish athletes won medals in an array of sports from beach volleyball, equestrian, fencing and judo, to swimming. They also had notable disappointments. The following is a round-up of results by the higher-profile Jewish Olympians introduced in the August 13 issue.

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In beach volleyball, Brazil’s Adriana Behar captured the silver medal as she had in Sydney. She and longtime partner Shelda Bede lost the final to the dominant Americans Kerri Walsh and Misty May who hadn’t lost a set-all tournament.

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In equestrian, American Robert Dover won his fourth medal in six Olympics: bronze in team dressage.

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In fencing, Sada Jacobson became the first American woman to win an Olympic fencing medal when she captured bronze in individual sabre. She avoided a quarterfinal showdown with her younger sister, Emily, when Emily lost in the round of 16. In team foil, Dan Kellner and Jon Tiomkin led the American men to a strong fourth-place finish. In team sabre, Russia’s Sergey Charikov won bronze (his fourth career medal) by defeating the American squad by one controversial point in the medal match.

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In judo, Arik Ze’evi captured Israel’s first medal of the games (and its third in judo): bronze in the 100kg category. Ze’evi was Israel’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony.

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In swimming, Ukrainian-born American Lenny Krayzelburg did not sweep the backstroke events as he had done in Sydney. After two shoulder surgeries, he had more modest aspirations. He left Athens with one gold medal in the 4x100m medley relay. In the 100m backstroke, the world-record holder missed a medal by .02 seconds, placing fourth. American Jason Lezak won two medals: gold in the 4x100m medley relay by swimming the final that Michael Phelps sat out (Phelps wanted to give his teammate Ian Crocker a chance to prove himself), and bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. American Scott Goldblatt won gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay. German breaststroker Sarah Poewe won bronze in the 4x100m medley relay.

* * *

Overall, track was a disappointment. Ukrainian sprinter Zhanna Pintusevich-Block failed to make any finals. Although she was the 2001 world champion at 100m (a race in which she upset Marion Jones), she did not advance past the semis in Athens. Her 4x100m relay team was also eliminated in the heats. Israeli pole vaulter Alex Averbukh underperformed, as well; the 2002 European Champion placed eighth.

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Canoe/kayak athletes also flamed out. The only man to make a final was Israel’s Roei Yellin, who placed ninth in the K-1 1,000m flatwater event. American-born and Israeli-raised Rami Zur was eliminated early in both of his events. In his best discipline, the K-1 500m, he missed the final cut by one boat. In the same semifinal, the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist and Zur’s former Israeli teammate Michael Kalganov also was eliminated, finishing a large 2.684 seconds behind Zur. In whitewater canoeing, American Joe Jacobi also failed to make the final in the C-2, an event in which he won gold in 1992.

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But perhaps no one was as vilified for failing to deliver as the American men’s basketball team, coached by Larry Brown. The United States left with the bronze medal, tying its worst finish since the sport’s Olympic debut in 1936.

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