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The 2001 Jewish Olympics with Few Runners or Watchers, Maccabiah Athletes Soldier on

There were few spectators cheering when Lev Chiterman, 49, came chugging down the track to win the gold medal in Thursday’s 10,000-meter race.

The Russian runner doesn’t speak much English — or Hebrew, for that matter — but officials of the 16th Maccabiah Games dug up a few local Russian referees who could time Chiterman’s laps and call out the results in his own language.

His dirty blonde hair and white mesh tank top plastered with sweat, Chiterman passed his competitors, two Americans and one Canadian. In fact, he led the 25 laps, and then added another lap between himself and David Tepper, the Canadian runner.

He finished in 35 minutes.

“His sneakers are really old and he can’t afford new ones,” Lenny Ferman of Jacksonville, Fla., said of Chiterman. “I’m going to give him mine when we leave,” he added, pointing at his orange Nikes.

Ferman, 37, won the bronze medal, while his teammate Jonathan Scott Vakneen, 33, from Los Angeles, took silver.

Granted, there were only four runners in the race, but Ferman was proud of his medal.

“I’m wearing it proudly,” he said. “And tonight I’m drinking Maccabi beer to celebrate.”

Ferman has wanted to compete for 20 years, but this is his first Maccabiah. It also is the first for Vakneen, whose father is Israeli.

In fact, Vakneen’s father, aunt, uncle and cousin were in the stands with several of Ferman’s cousins, cheering them through the race. Ferman’s cheerleaders held up a banner that read, “Go for the Gold, Lenny Ferman.”

Both Ferman and Vakneen said they hadn’t hesitated to join this year’s Maccabiah, even though it was almost canceled due to ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence.

But they were initially disappointed with today’s race, which was scheduled for 8 o’clock this morning and rescheduled for 6:30 a.m., and which didn’t actually start until almost 7.

Maccabiah officials had talked about canceling the race because it had only four runners, but Ferman spent the week convincing them to allow it.

I’ve had a 20-year dream to win a” Maccabiah “medal, and half the battle was just getting the race to happen,” he said.

Because of the violent Palestinian uprising, there are only 2,000 athletes in this year’s games, as opposed to the usual 4,000. The U.S. team, which normally has more than 500 athletes, has only 380 this year.

But nothing — not the intifada, the worsening security situation or the humid weather — was going to deter Ferman from this race.

“The running was tough in these kinds of weather conditions, even though I’m from Florida,” he said. “I barely made it for the last three or four laps.”

It was a typically hot, sticky day in Tel Aviv, which hosted the track event at the Hadar Yosef Sports Center in the northern part of the city. The air was wet and heavy, and the sounds of late afternoon traffic drifted over the field from the nearby highway.

“It’s difficult running conditions, challenging, because we’re not acclimated to the weather,” Vakneen agreed. “But I’m really glad it came together, because it’s been a great experience.”

As of Wednesday, Israel was leading in the medal race with 54 golds, 38 silver and 31 bronze medals. The U.S. team was in second place with nine gold, nine silver and 19 bronze medals.

The Jewish Olympics, as the Maccabiah Games are known, will continue through the weekend, ending on Monday night.

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