Israeli medalist was born in Uzbekistan

SYDNEY, Australia, Oct. 3 (JTA) – A lot of people missed it, but Israel did win a medal – a bronze – at the 2000 Olympic Games.

It happened on the final day of competition, in the final event in which Israel competed – the 500-meter kayaking race, which took place Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

The medal won by Michael Kolganov, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and a member of Kibbutz Degania Bet, partially erased a disappointing Olympics by Israeli athletes.

Kolganov’s medal lifts Israel’s overall Olympic medal tally to four – a silver for Yael Arad and a bronze for Oren Smadja for judo in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, and a bronze for windsurfing to Gal Friedman in Atlanta in 1996.

His victory boosted the number of Olympic medals won by Jewish athletes in the Sydney Games. These medals included a gold medal in team fencing by Masha Mazina, a fencer representing Russia who is a member of a Maccabee club – and of course, the triple gold medal by U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg.

But for Israel, Kolganov’s medal was a relief after several Israeli athletes had finished a painful fourth or fifth, narrowly missing a medal. Kolganov himself had finished fourth in the 1,000 meter kayak race.

“It was like giving birth,” said Israeli Olympic official Efraim Zinger. “At the beginning, there were close calls and pain, and in the end we got an amazing result.”

The results were particularly disappointing because Israel’s Sydney team, which included several immigrant athletes from the former Soviet Union, was considered the country’s strongest in its history and a threat to win multiple medals.

“I was under immense pressure,” said Kalganov. “Every day I saw our medal prospects go out and come back empty-handed. They told me I was the last chance, but even if they hadn’t, I realized it.”

Kalganov, 25, was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He first stepped into a kayak when he was 12, following in the footsteps of his older brother, who was a youth champion for the Soviet Union.

In 1995, the Jewish Agency for Israel brought Kalganov to Israel, where he currently trains on the Sea of Galilee.

“I have friends who went to America and Germany,” he said in a recent interview. “But as a Jew, I believe that my place is here. I feel very much at home in Israel.”

Among those who narrowly missed a medal were: high-jumper Konstantin Matusevich, who placed fifth; and judo athlete Arik Ze’evi; wrestler Yuri Yevseichik; sailors Anat Fabrikant and Shani Kedmi, all of whom finished fourth.

In addition, Eitan Orbach became the first Israeli to qualify for an Olympic swimming final, finishing eighth in the 100-meter backstroke, which was won by Krayzelburg.

After his fourth place finish in the 1,000 meters by an eyelash, Kalganov opened strong in the 500-meter race. He took the lead and maintained a boat length between himself and the other competitors until the final 150 meters.

Norway’s Knut Holmann won the event, followed by Bulgarian Petar Merkov.

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