Israeli Olympic hopefuls speak Russian

JERUSALEM, Sept. 6 (JTA) — Athletes from the former Soviet Union have transformed the Israeli Olympics sports scene.

About one-third of the Israeli team in the upcoming Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia — and five of the six strongest Israeli contenders— are originally from the former Soviet Union.

The team, which departed Sunday night for Sydney, includes top favorites Michael Kalganov, a kayaker who holds two gold medals in world championship competitions in 1998 and 1999, and Alex Averbach, a pole vaulter who won the bronze in the 1999 World Athletics Championships.

The Sydney Games will run from Sept. 15-Oct. 1.

Israel has only taken three medals in previous Olympics — a silver and bronze in 1992 for judo, and a bronze in windsurfing in 1996.

The immigrants brought the training methods and dedication that they learned in the punishing climate of the Soviet sports machine.

“The Russians brought their training techniques, and a discipline and seriousness that we did not have in Israel before,” said Golan Hazani, Olympic sports correspondent for Yediot Achronot, Israel’s biggest daily newspaper.

Ronen Hillel, spokesman for Israel’s Olympic committee, agrees: “Immigrants have made a very important contribution in coaching and training. They have brought high-level coaching techniques that lifted our athletes to new levels.”

The Olympics will also offer a unique opportunity to accelerate Israel’s acceptance of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Although many native Israelis harbor negative stereotypes about these immigrants, nobody doubts that when they don blue-and-white on the Olympic field or medal stand, Israelis will cheer with no qualms.

Still, immigrant athletes in Israel have found themselves under a scrutiny about their identity that veteran Israelis would not likely face.

In a news conference last week, after declaring he was shooting for the gold medal, pole-vaulter Averbach was asked whether he has learned the words to Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

“When I win the gold at Sydney,” he said, “you’ll hear how I can sing.”

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