Slowly they trickled in. Windsurfers, gymnasts, sailors, judokas. A sprinter, a sharpshooter and a pole vaulter. Tennis players and swimmers. The youngest was barely 18, the oldest celebrated his 35th birthday earlier in the year. They had one thing in common — they belonged to Team Israel and were headed to London for the 2012 Olympic games.
Less than three weeks until London 2012, the Israeli delegation to the games gathered on Sunday for two days of lectures, bonding, news conferences and preparation. These would be the only time all the athletes were present in one room, at a Tel Aviv hotel. Two of them will fly to England in a couple of days, and some will arrive back home before others.
Olympic committee head Zvi Warshaviak told the athletes he had convened the get-together “to turn you into one unit, the spearhead of sports in Israel. We want you to be prepared.”
There are 38 Israeli athletes headed to the upcoming Olympics. Most of the team are first timers, with 21 of them poised for their first Olympic appearance. They all received new uniforms, both formal and casual. Some of them met their future roommates for the first time.
“This is my first Olympics, not my last,” said Donald Sanford, the last addition to the team. The American-born sprinter was added to Israel’s delegation after a split second separated him from a medal in the 400 meter dash at the European championships. Asked about how he felt before his Olympic debut, Sanford told the Times of Israel he just planned on running as hard as he could. Addressing the blue-and-white uniform, he said the team was “new to me,” adding there was “a good connection.”
Sergy Rikhter is only turning 23, but already he’s made a name for himself. The marksman shares the junior world record in the 10 meter air rifle, and in 2009 he won gold at the world championships. In 2011 he won silver at the world cup, and became the first Israeli athlete to claim a guaranteed spot at the London games.
Rikhter doesn’t want to think about anything but success. “Failure would be thinking I could have done something differently,” he told the Times of Israel while sipping on juice in the hotel lobby.
Trained by three-time Olympian Guy Starik, the sharpshooter knows what he’s worth, and explained that reaching the Olympic finals is “a realistic goal,” adding that he was aiming for the podium.
Yoni Erlich looks at his status as a veteran on the team as an opportunity to make sure the torch is passed to the next generation in a proper manner. One half of Israel’s doubles team in tennis (along with Andy Ram), the 35-year-old Erlich says he wants the younger generation to understand what it’s all about.
“The first ‘wow!’ when you walk into the Olympic village,” he said, starting to describe the initial emotions of an Olympian. “Marching in the opening ceremony. Looking left and seeing Kobe Bryant, while on your right is another super-athlete. You can’t feel it anywhere else.”
Shahar Peer, perhaps Israel’s best-known athlete internationally, said she was excited, and already thinking about 2016. “This is my second trip to the Olympics, and my goal is to return for a third time,” the tennis star told reporters. Noting that the games would be played on the grass surface of Wimbledon, Peer said it was hard to train for the games. “It’s always an honor to represent Israel,” she said.
Judo is a field in which Israel has a proud national history, and one of the fields in which the change of the guard was most obvious.
Arik Zeevi is one of Israel’s most decorated athletes. The 35-year-old judoka won four European championships (including 2012), and has an Olympic medal under his belt. “It’s always nice to see the rest of the team,” he told the Times of Israel, saying the excitement comes later, closer to the time of actual competition.
In this team, he also has another job — as the most experienced member there will be many people looking his way for advice. Especially the new judokas — three of whom are coached by Olympic medalist Oren Smadja. “Learn to block out the noise,” was the one tip Zeevi was willing to share publicly. “Everything else you learn as you go.”
Smadja stated he was proud to be part of such a team, this time as a coach. Having three young judokas on the team was a success, he said. “I remember when I started and the paths I walked.”
Judoka Alice Schlesinger is one of the leading hopes for a first female-won medal since the ’92 games in Barcelona. “It definitely adds pressure,” she said of the country’s female medal drought. “The only thing different about the Olympics is that they’re held every four years. The mat’s the same mat, the weighing room has the same scale and the opponents are the same opponents.”
Explaining how, when in Israel, she usually trains with the men, the judoka spoke about her experience next to Zeevi. “I like and admire him,” she said. “He gives us all hope that we can make it.” The 24 year-old added she wanted to do better than on her Olympic debut. “I always want to win. A medal would be nice.”
The tandem of male sailors on the 470 models features veteran Gideon Kliger (three time Olympian) with newbie Eran Sela. The two have already won medals together in the European Championship and World Cup.
“We’ve had good preparations,” Kliger said. A medal is a goal that can be achieved, he told the Times of Israel. “We expect to finish in the top five.”
Accompanying the athletes will be the ghosts of the 11 members of the Israeli team killed at the Munich games 40 years ago. Israel’s campaign for an official minute of silence has brought the issue into the limelight, though team members refrained from discussing it. Instead they noted that the murdered team members would be memorialized in other ways.
“We are acting to commemorate them anywhere possible,” delegation head Efraim Zinger told reporters. “The 11 victims were Israeli, but they were also Olympic athletes,” and “we try to make sure they are remembered that way,” he said. Warshaviak added that Israel and its Olympic committee “will never forget, and always remember,” those killed during the Munich games.
‘The 11 victims were Israeli, but they were also Olympic athletes’
Zinger also noted a memorial service “with hundreds of people, from all over the world,” would be held at some point during the games.
According to the team’s schedule, on Monday they will be paying tribute to those murdered in the 1972 Munich massacre before being hosted for an official send-off ceremony by President Shimon Peres.
Zinger told reporters Peres will “most likely” be at the reception ceremony for the delegation in London on July 25. It would be the first time the head of state is present for such an occasion, he said.
MKs Alex Miller and Einat Wilf, the outgoing and incoming heads of the Knesset’s sports committee, both congratulated the athletes.
“In London, you are us,” Wilf said. “You are the state of Israel.”