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.”

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  • Paul Shindman

    I firmly believe that nobody should be on the Israeli Olympic team unless they make the commitment and live here in Israel. Is Edelman coming back to live in Israel and build the sport here? Does the Mt. Hermon Skeleton Club and School exist? How many kids are training now for the 2022 and 2026 games?
    I’m looking forward to more articles on who is on the team and what they are doing for their sport in Israel.

    • AJ

      Paul, all due respect you brought up this point 3 years ago on many of the articles related to the team. I would urge you to please read up on who the athletes are and why we do what we do. The recent Haaretz article goes into detail about the Zionism of the athletes, and the Jpost article as well touches on it.
      I’m not sure why you find it unfortunate that Israelis participate in Winter sports that can only be contested in chul. I understand you love hockey, but these athletes are ambassadors in other sports, and I think they should be applauded.

      • Paul Shindman

        AJ – please share here with the readers who you are and where you are. I’m happy to hop in my car and come visit you from Beersheba to Metulla (I’m guessing none of you live in Eilat) and the first round of beer/coffee is on me. As I stated, my issue is with people who live in chul, compete in chul, then stay in chul and don’t bother living in Israel at all, yet apply to the IOC to represent Israel. I happen to love all winter sports, especially the ones that are in Israel – hockey, short track speed skating (well, it’s had its ups and downs), figure skating and downhill snow sports (GREAT SNOW over the weekend on the Hermon – wanna grab your snowboard and meet me there this week???) and even curling (I assume you’ve been to the rink in Holon).
        My personal opinion is that I think that people who do not make the commitment to live in Israel should not be wearing the blue and white at the Olympics. I think Israel’s OC must change the rules so that there is indeed a commitment price to pay for being on the Israeli Olympic team – you want to be a Zionist bobsledder? Sure, raise the money and start a dryland training program at the foot of Har Hermon and teach young Israelis how to bobsled. Live up there and run the program when you aren’t training on an actual bobsled track. Want to be the Zionist skeleton team? Same deal – the price of wearing the uniform and marching into the Olympic stadium should be that you commit to sharing that with Israelis living in Israel and you build the future of the sport in Israel for Israelis.

        • AJ Edelman, Olympic Skeleton A

          I’d really rather you do some research, haaretz had Pretty decent piece. Or you can do a bit of reading at israelskeleton.com/bio
          You seem adamant that all winter Athletes must train in the hermon (2 years ago when I trained at Wingate you stated it was unacceptable and must live in the Hermon.)
          The simple fact is this: I love Israel. Deeply. It is my home (Netanya, not the Hermon, sorry to disappoint). But given that all sliding sports athletes train at existing olympic facilities set up in the few countries that have recently hosted the Games, and the fact that it costs $40k a year to compete, building a million dollar facility for 4 dryland months isn’t really a proper option. It isn’t an option for the Jamaicans (who train in Calgary), it isn’t an option for us.
          I would prefer you celebrate Israelis (yes, even olim chadashim are Israelis too, I don’t know why you treat us any other way) who do everything they can to be shagririm/ambassadors of our country, rather than try to put them down. I truly don’t understand the mentality.

          • Paul Shindman

            I previously posted some unfair comments based on some actual history coupled with modern misinformation. Mea culpa. After researching more about AJ, I have nothing but praise for his efforts
            and dedication and wish him the best of luck in Korea.
            Years ago I
            was put off by some athletes living abroad who tied to parachute their
            way into the Israeli Olympic team, but AJ is doing it the right way. And it’s also the hard way. He
            loves Israel so much he made aliya, got enamored with what a lot of people think is an
            impossible goal, set his mind to it, and accomplished it. Big time.
            Anybody who has competed at the elite level knows the amount of work, dedication and energy that must be invested without the assurance of achieving the result your after. AJ got the results and on Thursday Feb 15 my family and I will be in front of the tv cheering him on.
            Representing your country in an international competition is huge. I believe AJ will be a great ambassador for Israel.