Israeli team acquires a Russian accent Of 32-athlete squad, 11 are former Soviets


NETANYA, Israel -- Israelis have never won an Olympic medal. When they lost, the athletes bemoaned their fate in Hebrew.

Now they speak Russian.

Eleven of the 32 Israeli Olympic athletes going to Barcelona, Spain, are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They include all the wrestling team and most of the weightlifters, the marksmen and the track and field squad.

At Israel's Olympic training center here on the Mediterranean coast, Russian is as common as Hebrew. Even the snack shop is run by a blue-eyed blonde who came from the Soviet Union.

"Israel wants a medal, and everyone wants us to win it," said Zagranitchni Nik, a 22-year-old wrestler who emigrated 18 months ago from Ukraine.

Israel hopes that among the half-million Jews who fled to this country after the collapse of the Soviet Union is one who will break the Olympic medal jinx.

Winning one Olympic medal -- never mind the gold, bronze will do just fine -- has become a national obsession. In a country that constantly holds a mirror to its face, they would like to see an athlete.

"Everyone wants to talk about a medal. That's all I hear," said an exasperated Uri Afek, head of the Israel Olympic Committee. "They want me to promise one, but I can't."

For good reason. Always in the past, fate snatched away Israel's chance.

In 1972, Esther Rot was an up-and-coming hurdler with the legs and speed for an upset victory. But the terrorist attack on the Games in Munich, West Germany, sent her home before the finals.

In 1988, Israeli yachtsmen had a chance at the bronze. But when Yom Kippur fell on the day of one of the races, they reluctantly declined to sail.

Then this year, two beefy weight- lifters from Russia, Yuri and Igor Dandek, raised Israeli hopes. Both placed among the best in world competition. Both were immigrants to Israel and being touted as heroes.

Both flunked drug tests for steroids at a competition in Europe earlier this year, banning them from Olympic competition. They disappeared after the disqualification, and were last heard from in Ukraine.

"It was a real disappointment to me," said Shmuel Lalkin, director of the Israel Sports Federation. "We were thinking of achieving what has never been achieved before: a chance to touch the medal."

Israel is not without hopes for Barcelona. Most rest with native Israelis. Most promising is Yael Arad (whose name means "bronze" in Hebrew), a 25-year-old female judoka who has won top medals in European judo competition. Amit Inbar, a windsurfer, and the two-man yacht team of Yoel Sela and Eldad Amir are given outside chances.

The former Soviet athletes, despite their numbers on the Israeli team, are not expected to capture an Olympic medal. Sports officials here acknowledge that except for the Dandek brothers, most of the emigrants from the former Eastern bloc are not the best.

"They're good enough to be Israeli champions. But in the rest of the world, they will get 11th or 12th or 13th place," said Ruvin Keinan, a wrestling organizer for the Israeli Sports Federation and an emigrant from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

"I wouldn't be going to the Olympics if I were still in Ukraine," said Nik, a 106-pound wrestler. "There were people in Ukraine much better than me."

He was in the Russian army, but when his family immigrated to Israel, Nik had little problem winning a scholarship, room and board at the Wingate Institute, the Olympic training center 20 miles north of Tel Aviv.

"In Israel, the kids only want money and to go abroad, and they don't want to work hard," he said of his native-born competitors.

Israelis grapple, with some embarrassment, with their failure to excel in 40 years of competition in the Olympics.

Some of the causes are measurable: The government spends little money on developing sports. Athletics are financed by Toto, the national lottery, but most of the $45 million in annual revenues goes to soccer and basketball.

"Sport in Israel is not so important. The government doesn't budget for it," said Afek, the Israeli Olympic Committee official.

High schools require only two hours of gym class each week. Few schools have athletic fields. Many have only a blacktop playground with a few rusty and netless basketball hoops.

In addition, all Israelis must go into the army between the ages of 18 and 21, often the peak age for athletic skills. The army allows only 80 partial exemptions for athletes.

With the exception of the Wingate Institute, a manicured campus with modern gyms, pools and courts shared by the army, athletic facilities in Israel are woefully inadequate.

Some of the immigrants bring winter sports skills, but have no place to use them. Israel has its first Olympic-potential figure skater in 20-year-old Mikhail Shmerkin, but no Olympic-sized ice skating rink.

"Training for him is a problem," said Paul Shindman, president of the Israeli Ice Hockey and Figure Skating Association.

Most of Israel's Olympic athletes leave the country for their training. In addition to better facilities and trainers in Europe or America, they can find good competition.

But countries smaller and poorer consistently provide Olympic winners. Israelis say there is more to their poor record than lack of money or facilities.

"In Israel, there isn't very high discipline. They don't arrive every day to practice," said Moshe Jurist, an official of the Israel Sports Federation.

A new attitude toward sport -- and the coaches to enforce it -- may be the greatest contribution the immigrant athletes bring to Israel.

"The Russians have very good coaching, very good training. And they are very disciplined," said David Saidi, a track and field official for the Hapoel Sports Club in Tel Aviv. "They can really help us."

Afek estimates that nearly 1,000 coaches, referees, athletes and sports organizers came to Israel in the past two years. But Israel must find them jobs in athletics, said Shindman.

"Not only do you have to give them the kids, and the training time, and the facilities," he said, "but they have to be able to pay the rent."

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