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ATHENS 2004 | Passport Portraits | A series of look
at Olympians from around the world

Zeevi's Judo Bronze Is Good as Gold for Israel

August 20, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Ariel Zeevi stretched, bounced and rocked back and forth on his bare feet, bandages on his big toes. A trainer massaged his temples, scratched every inch of his scalp and pounded his back and legs.

Israel's star judoka then bounded from the waiting lanes and in short order threw Dutch opponent Elco van Der Geest to take the bronze in men's 100-kilogram competition Thursday, earning his country its first medal of the 2004 Olympic Games and only its fifth in more than 50 years of history.

The large Israeli contingent, many of whom had flown to Greece just for this occasion at the Ano Liossia Olympic Hall in northern Athens, erupted with such loud joy that it was difficult to tell there were other medalists also claiming victory.

"Arik! Arik!" they chanted, using the 220-pounder's nickname. The stands were festooned with Israeli flags and banners in Hebrew urging him on. After Zeevi won, the crowd broke into a rendition of the Israeli national anthem.

At 27, the beefy, three-time European champion with a quick, dimpled smile and tousled brown hair is nothing less than a hero in a country not known for its sports prowess.

Most of Israel's successful athletes are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Zeevi is a "sabra," a native-born Israeli, a symbol of achievement and pride to be celebrated: Thursday night in Israel, where people followed Zeevi's judo matches meticulously, TV newscasters opened their shows gleefully and the nation's leading website proclaimed Zeevi the "King of Israel." Women offered matrimony.

"I know it sounds sad," said Ron Kauffman, senior sports editor at Israel's leading Haaretz newspaper, "but we don't have many athletes at this level. What you Americans get in medals in a single day we've gotten in our entire history. Zeevi makes us extremely proud."

Israeli participation in any Olympics or similar international competition is always bittersweet, however. The memory is indelible of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed at the 1972 Munich Games when Palestinian guerrillas took the group hostage in demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Thursday, by the Hebrew calendar, was the 22nd anniversary of that day of bloodshed. Two and a half hours after fellow Israeli Alex Gilady of the International Olympic Committee placed a bronze medal around his neck and a wreath of olive branches on his head, Zeevi attended a memorial service for the Munich victims.

The crowded service at the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Greece drew the president of the IOC, the mayor of Athens and widows of the slain athletes. But it was Zeevi who drew gasps and applause when he walked in, still dressed in his blue track suit.

One legacy of the Munich horror, and the unpopularity in much of the world of Israeli policy, is the extraordinary security that is deployed around the Jewish state's Olympic delegation. Like the Americans, the Israelis are secluded behind round-the-clock armed guards, are urged to maintain a low profile and rarely mingle with other athletes.

Tensions were further heated earlier this week when an Iranian judoka refused to face his Israeli rival and was disqualified. Iran does not recognize Israel.

But the crowd that turned out to cheer Zeevi in his matches Thursday did so without reserve.

Barak Breiman, a lawyer from Tel Aviv, was one of them. He wore an Israeli flag as a cape, and wore the image of one on his cheek. He said he hadn't experienced hostility since arriving in Athens a couple of days earlier, adding that he felt safe because the U.S. had supplanted Israel as the perennial skunk at the picnic.

"The U.S. is more like we have been in the past," Breiman said. "It is important to carry the flag in an international arena. We don't have too many occasions to do it."

Zeevi, who also carried Israel's flag into the opening ceremony last Friday, said fatigue contributed to his second-round loss to the Korean Sung Ho-Jang, which took him out of running for the gold. It was the crowd that brought him back, he said, adding that he had never competed in front of such a large audience of Israeli fans.

"I knew that there would be many Israelis but I wasn't prepared for this. There was an Israeli flag everywhere I looked, and it helped me tremendously," he said. "It was absolutely amazing."

Researcher Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

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