Home Culture Israel at the Winter Olympics — Part One

Israel at the Winter Olympics — Part One

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It took some 40 years of effort but in 2004, the Israeli anthem was finally played at the Olympics when Gal Fridman was awarded gold for his incredible achievement in windsurfing. While Israeli athletes have distinguished themselves at the summer games in sailing, judo and canoeing, their winter counterparts are still vying for their first medal in the skating rink or on the ski slopes. That’s where Israel’s frozen chosen will be competing when the world’s finest meet at the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

 Israel first sent its first winter delegation, actually a solo mission, to the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway where skater Michael Shmerkin finished a respectable 16th. At Nagano, Japan, in 1998, Shmerkin was joined by ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski. The pair would return to compete twice more finishing as high as sixth in 2002.

The Israeli contingent grew to five in Salt Lake City when Israel first competed in short track speedskating with Olga Danilov. Many familiar names were back In Turin, Italy in 2006, where Chait danced with Sakhnovski, and Alexandra Zaretski paired off with her brother Roman. That year Israel was first represented off the ice rink by alpine skier, Ukrainian oleh Mikail Renzhyn. But once again, no medals.

The Israeli team entering Vancouver’s Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Games.

The team was scaled back to three (the Zaretskys and Renzhyn) for Vancouver in 2010. Although figure skater Tamar Katz qualified according to Olympic standards, the Israeli Olympic Committee wanted to put its weight behind athletes it thought had a greater chance of reaching the podium. So Katz was iced.

Boris Chait, chairman of the Israel Ice Skating Federation, was none too pleased. He told the New York Times, “… I’m trying to explain that these people are ambassadors. We’ve been to countries where people come up and say: ‘We didn’t know you Israelis knew how to skate. We thought you only knew how to shoot.’ … Israel is not like Germany or the United States, where they can be choosy. They have hundreds of athletes, all capable of winning medals.” Despite the selective strategy, Israel was shut out again.

At the 2014 games in Sochi, Israel’s contingent was back to five, all Olympic newcomers: alpine skier Virgile Vandeput, men’s figure skater Alexei Bychenko, pairs Andrea Davidovich and Evgeni Krasnoposki, and short track speed skater, Vladislav Bykanov.

But dual Israel-American citizen Andrea Davidovich won’t be representing Israel in South Korea. When she made it clear that she wanted to be on Team USA, the Israeli Olympic Association was upset. They did not want to release Davidovich because they felt that it would encourage other skaters in whom it had invested substantial time and training to do the same. The International Skating Union has granted Davidovich’s request.

While Davidovich doesn’t want to compete for Israel at the Olympics, that is the goal of AJ Edelman, member of Israel’s national bobsled team. Reminiscent of the Jamaican bobsled team that turned heads at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, it turns out that Israel actually has its own bobsled hopefuls. Sort off. Although the team has already participated in world championships, their Olympic dream still waits on the horizon. But they persevere including Edelman, who competes in both bobsled and skeleton for Israel.

Edelman’s hilarious promo video makes his case. It states:

“Skeleton is a sport requiring …

singular focus… steely nerves… incredible stamina… and ice.

Israel is missing one of these.

But he’s training anyway.

Support AJ Edelman – the #HebrewHammer – as he chases his Olympic dream.”

This year, Israel is sending its largest winter contingent ever – nine. (More on them next time.) When they and their entourage arrive in South Korea, they will have a couple of friendly faces waiting for them, Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman. Ten years ago, the Litzmans established South Korea’s first Chabad house in Seoul, home to about 400 Jews. Those numbers are bound to swell as tourists descend on PyeongChang. The Litzmans are rolling out the welcome mat with:

  • two temporary Jewish centres in PyeongChang
  • 8,000 pre-packaged kosher meals
  • Shabbat dinners and hospitality over the course of the three Friday nights of the Games.

Says Rabbi Litzman, “Our goal is to make sure that every Jew coming to South Korea has a powerful Jewish experience and a place to feel at home.”