Turin, ItalyIsrael’s winter Olympians will have to wait at least another four years to make history.
Ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovskiy were given the best chance of winning the country’s first-ever medals in the Winter Games. They have been ranked among the world’s best pairs since 2000 and won several medals at international competitions.
Then Chait fell.
Coming out of a turn during the opening-night compulsory event, she stumbled. She and Sakhnovskiy, who finished the compulsories 13th of 24 pairs, would give a dazzling, flawless performance at the original dance portion two nights later, jumping to ninth place, before finishing eighth Monday night after the free dance.
The pair, both 30, who had competed in two previous Olympics, came in sixth at the ’02 Games in Salt Lake City, the highest placing of any Israeli at a Winter Olympics.
Israel’s other ice dancers, the brother-sister team of Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky, finished in 20th place.
Both teams "skated well," said Boris Chait, president of the Israel Skating Federation and Galit’s father. "They skated their hearts out."
He said the skaters’ performances gave a "tremendous boost" to the popularity of winter sports in Israel (the country has participated in the Winter Olympics only since 1994) whose fans are more familiar with soccer and basketball.
The original dance competition, four minutes of dancing to music chosen by the skaters, was aired live on Israeli television for the first time, Boris Chait said.
"Everyone was talking about this," he said. "Everyone was watching."
The Israelis also drew the attention of Italian TV. Galit Chait and Sakhnovskiy were featured on "Israel on Ice," a program on Channel 2 a few hours after the final competition.
Israel, Boris Chait pointed out, was among a few countries, mostly major ones like the United States and Russia, which had qualified more than one pair of skaters for the ice dancing competition. He called it a remarkable achievement for a sport that receives limited financial support from the government.
"We’re struggling for money," receiving most of its funding from supporters in the United States, he said. "We’re struggling for identity. We’re fighting for the podium."
Israeli athletes have entered the Summer Olympics since 1952, but did not win a medal until 1992. Israelis have won a total of six medals at the Summer Games.
The country has received an athletic boost from the aliyah from the former Soviet Union since the late 1970s. Sakhnovskiy and the Zaretskys, and Olympic slalom skier Mikhail Renzhin are emigres. Chait, who grew up in New Jersey, was born in Israel.
Jewish-American ice dancer Benjamin Agosto won silver this week with Tanith Belbin, a Canadian who had received U.S. citizenship just in time to qualify for the American team. They were the first Americans to medal in ice dancing since Colleen O’Connor and James Millns in 1976.
Melissa Gregory, who is Jewish, and her partner Denis Petukhov, who were matched up via the Internet, finished in 14th place. Jamie Silverstein, who had quit the sport for more than a year before resuming it a year ago, and Ryan O’Meara were 18th.
Alex Gilady, Israel’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, said he was satisfied with the Israeli skaters’ performances.
"They did their best, which is what we expect," he said.
After the Zaretskys received low marks from the judges during the free dance competition, the crowd booed lustily. It was a pleasant change, Gilady said, from the scene in many international forums where audiences boo against Israelis.
"The public are great sports lovers," he said.
Gilady said he did not expect the Israelis to win medals here.
"I expected them to perform excellently, which they did," he said.
Gilady said Chait skated "brilliantly" after her "very unhappy" opening night spill.
"I tripped over a blade," Chait explained. "I made a mistake. It’s the first time in 11 years [of international competition] I’ve made a mistake like that. It was just an accident. I was in shock."
Though she and Sakhnovskiy had stronger showings in the subsequent dancing, the strength of the competition meant they probably would not have won a medal, even with a mistake-free performance in the compulsories, Chait said.
"I think we would have been closer" to the podium, she said.
Friends from Israel called immediately after the fall.
"They would not let me rest," Chait said. "Everyone was worried."
We fought back. We proved we are strong competitors."Chait skated the free dance in a white, pouffy dress. She twirled and glided to loud applause. Sakhnovskiy, like most of the men, was outfitted in black.
In the stands of Palevela, a slightly heated, temporarily converted conference center and exhibition hall in southeast Turin, a few Israel fans waved large flags and yelled "YIS-RO-EL!" The fans, some of whom had stood outside in security lines for more than an hour, were bundled in jackets against the weather that had turned that afternoon from a light rain to heavy snow.
Chait, after saying her customary pre-performance prayer to "skate my best," took the ice the final night in a white and gold dress. She and Sakhnovskiy danced to Ravel’s "Bolero."
"I’m a little disappointed, of course," she said afterward. "We wanted a medal."
"This will be our last Olympics: for sure," Chait said.She and Sakhnovskiy will skate competitively for about another year, then go into teaching or coaching, she said. "We want to help prepare stronger Israeli teams."
Chait and Sakhnovskiy will compete in the World Championships next month in Calgary where, Boris Chait said, "They’re going to try for medals."