Israel, which has won only six Olympic medals ever — its first gold, in sailing, came at Athens in 2004 — is sending 41 athletes to the Beijing Games, which open Aug. 8. Israel’s Olympic delegation attended a recent two-day seminar in Tel Aviv where members were briefed on everything from security to Chinese culture. Past Israeli Olympians discussed their experiences with this year’s athletes, most of them first-time Olympians.
The leading Israeli contenders for medals are sailors Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger, tennis players Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, and gymnast Alex Shatilov.
Several Jewish athletes, including the much-heralded 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres, along with other swimmers Jason Lezak, Ben Wildman-Tobriner and Garrett Weber-Gale, fencer Sada Jacobson and marathoner Deena Kstor, have a place on the U.S. roster. The delegations from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe often include Jewish athletes.
While Israel and the U.S. traditionally send the bulk of Jewish athletes to the Olympics, Jews from several other countries usually compete and sometimes win medals. Some foreign medal hopefuls are profiled here.
Inspired By New Zealand’s Triumph
Jo Aleh, a 9-year-old elementary school student when the Black Magic sailing boat of New Zealand, her homeland, beat the United States in the 1995 America’s Cup regatta, was attracted to sailing for two reasons.
She liked the water, spending her free time playing and swimming in Auckland’s majestic harbor.
And she liked the America’s Cup results. “Part of the attraction was watching New Zealand cleaning up on the world stage,” she says.
After taking sailing lessons, she quickly found success in the sport.
At 22, Aleh will be on the world stage next week. The top-ranked New Zealand female in her one-women sailing event, and No. 4 in the world, she is a favorite to win a medal in the Beijing harbor and is relatively well-known among her country’s sports fans. “Sailing has always been a big sport in New Zealand,” she says.
Aleh is, as far as she knows, the only Jewish athlete on New Zealand’s Summer Olympics squad this year. The daughter of an Israeli father and a Kiwi mother who made aliyah, she was born in New Zealand after her parents moved back to her mother’s hometown.
An engineering major at Auckland University, she has put her studies on hold for the last two years to concentrate on training for the Games. So far she’s competed in the United States, Europe, South America, and recently, in China. “Most of the continents,” she says in a telephone interview with The Jewish Week.
Next year she returns to school, but hopes for a career in her sport. “Engineering is a backup.” Her three-mile event consists of two laps of a coast-side course, sometimes reaching speeds of about 25 miles an hour.
In the weeks before the Games, Aleh cut back her time on the water and increased her hours at the gym. To be a good sailor, she says, “You have to be reasonably fit and reasonably strong.”
Making History For Germany
Like many Olympic athletes, Sarah Poewe (pronounced PER-ver) travels a lot — she trains on three continents for the breaststroke swimming event. A scholarship student at the University of Georgia, Athens, Poewe splits her other training between her two countries of citizenship: South Africa and Germany.
Like many Olympic athletes, Poewe, 25, has competed in the Games for two countries. First she swam for South Africa, her mother’s homeland, then for Germany, her father’s.
Poewe’s decision after the 2002 Commonwealth Games to change flags was historic. She is believed to be the first openly Jewish athlete to enter the Olympic Games with a German team since the Holocaust.
At the Athens Games in 2004, four years after she took part in the Summer Games in Sydney for South Africa, she was part of a German women’s 4×100-meter medley team that won a bronze medal.
Politically conscious, she is a member of Team Darfur, a consciousness-raising campaign founded by Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek and water polo player Brad Greiner to help end the genocide in Sudan by highlighting China’s role in the problem. Participating athletes wear Team Darfur wristbands and give speeches about the topic.
“Growing up in a third-world country, South Africa, one is constantly surrounded by homeless, starving African people,” Poewe explains on the teamdarfur.org Web site. “I feel deeply for this organization.”
‘Long Days’ Lead To Beijing
For most athletes with Olympic aspirations, training for the Games is a full-time job.
For most students with desires to be a physician, studying in medical school is a full-time endeavor.
Imagine doing both at the same time.
David Zalcberg does it — eight hours of rounds at a hospital in his native Melbourne, Australia, followed by five hours of table tennis practice.
He also makes his own table tennis paddles.
“They are long days,” says Zalcberg, 27, one of Australia’s top-ranked table tennis players since he became a professional in the low-paying sport a decade ago. “It’s a lot of training and it doesn’t leave room for much else.”
Zalcberg, who qualified for the Athens Olympics in 2004 and finished 17th in men’s doubles, is a member of Australia’s six-member table tennis squad that will compete in Beijing. He’ll play in the singles and doubles events. This, despite suffering a series of injuries two years ago that led doctors to predict he would never play again. He missed competitions during a 10-month recuperation period and lost his national ranking, but then managed to regain his world-class form.
“Athens was amazing, but to go to the Olympics where you are playing the premier sport” — table tennis is mega-popular in China, which usually ranks among the sport’s world powers — “it’s what you always dream about as a kid,” Zalcberg tells Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper. “That’s why, for me, qualifying for Beijing was so important.”
Zalcberg, who began playing table tennis at age 12 in his family garage, spends most of the year training in Sweden.
He attended Melbourne’s Mount Scopus College Jewish day school, was team captain and flag bearer for Australia’s team at the Maccabi International Games in Sydney in 2006 and was named Maccabi Australia sportsman of the year in 2007.
His inspiration, he says on the Australian Olympic Team Web site, is Dr. Patch Adams, the American doctor and gadfly who incorporates a huge dose of humor into his medical practice. “I cannot look at that man and not want to do better, be better, achieve better!” Zalcberg says.