Two months before the Olympic torch is lit at the London 2012 Olympic Park, preparations around the world are entering their final stretch and Israeli athletes hope to hit the ground running.
Israel’s delegation to the Games currently consists of 26 athletes in 10 different fields of competition, all dreaming of the Israeli flag being waved above them while on the winners’ podium. Some also believe they have what it takes to hear Hatikvah played at their ceremony as they are awarded the gold.
“We have high expectations from London 2012,” Gili Lustig, chairman of the Elite Sport Department, told Army Radio on Monday, following a weekend of strong performances from Israeli athletes in international competition — a gold medal at the windsurfing world championships, a bronze medal won in gymnastics at the European championships, and five medals in different swim heats at the European championships — that gladdened the hearts and swelled the expectations of Israeli Olympic officials.
Here’s a short glance at the Israelis who are medal hopefuls — the athletes who have already proven themselves at the highest level of international competition, those who turn Israelis into avid fans of windsurfing, gymnastics, swimming and judo.
Shahar Zubari is considered one of Israel’s finest athletes, and on Saturday he won the windsurfing gold medal at a world championship event held in Holland, further cementing his reputation at the international level. He hopes to follow in the wake of fellow surfer Gal Fridman, who won windsurfing gold in the Athens Games in 2004.
Zubari told reporters at the aiport upon his return from Holland on Sunday that he was happy with the win but was “looking forward to the real thing,”
the upcoming summer games. In addition to the recent medal, the windsurfer also won the 2010 world championships and a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, making him one of the most experienced members of the delegation.
Alex Shatilov leads the Israeli gymnastics delegation. The winner of multiple medals at European and World Championships over recent years added another bronze to his collection on Sunday, when he placed third in the floor category during the European Championships in France. Although happy with the medal, Shatilov told Israeli press he could have placed higher. “I made two mistakes,” he said, adding that he’d learn from this competition before stepping on the floor in London, where he believes he can reach the top. “I hope the medal in London will be the color I want it to be.”
The medal wasn’t only a victory over other gymnasts, but also a statement. Shatilov suffered from a knee injury in 2010. Winning a second international medal since his return, and only two months before the start of the Olympic games, shows once again that the finalist from the 2008 games in Beijing is aiming high.
Swimming is considered one of the most prestigious Olympic sports, and although Mark Spitz brought Jewish pride to the podium, Israel has yet to win an Olympic medal in the pool.
Israel has yet to win an Olympic medal in the pool
There are three swimmers in this year’s delegation, and after Yakov-Yan Toumarkin and Amit Ivri won three medals at the European Championships over the weekend — Toumarkin becoming the first Israeli to win two at the same competition — expectations are high. Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat said their weekend performance gave the country hope for its first-ever medal from a swimmer. Gal Nevo, who placed 13th in the 200 medley category at the 2008 games, will join the two.
Judo is where Israelis feel secure and where national Olympic pride has been at its peak since the country’s first Olympic medal in any sport was earned on the mat by Yael Arad during the 1992 games.
Expectations from Olympic medalist and four-time European champion Arik Zeevi, who regained the European title at age 35 in March, are very high. Zeevi has won medals in every major international contest, and many Israelis believe that, in what could be his last time on the Olympic mat, he might deliver the gold.
In the women’s category, Alice Schlesinger will hope to continue to shine in international competitions. After winning the 2005 European Championships at age 17, Schlesinger was expected to contend at the Olympic level in London, but surprised everyone when she managed to meet the criteria for participation in the 2008 games in Beijing.
During September, Schlesinger won the silver at a Grand Prix in Germany, where she lost only one match, by the judges’ call, to the two-time world champion Yoshie Ueno from Japan. Now 24, Schlesinger will be able to share this Olympic experience with Zeevi, and possibly learn from one of the best European judokas before his retirement.