Russian Jewish Olympic presence dwindles
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Russian Jewish Olympic presence dwindles

MOSCOW, July 25 (JTA) — Jewish emigration to Israel has bolstered the Jewish state’s Olympic team, but it has greatly reduced the number of Jews competing for the Russians in the upcoming Athens Games. In the 40 years following the 1952 Helsinki Games — in which the Soviet Union competed as a country for the first time — Jews won at least 60 medals for the Soviet Olympic team, including 28 golds. Soviet Jews were especially successful in fencing — taking home seven Olympic golds — in addition to wrestling and yachting, in which they won three gold medals respectively. The peak of Jewish Olympic victories for the Soviet team came during the 1960s and 1970s: Of the 28 gold medals Jews won for the USSR between 1952 and 1992, 18 were garnered between 1960 and 1976. After that period, Jewish participation began to decline as a result of state-sponsored anti-Semitism. As for the Athens Games, which begin Aug. 13, Sergei Sharikov, 30, who won two Olympic saber fencing golds in 1996 and in 2000, is the only confirmed Jewish athlete on the Russian team. Sharikov declined to be interviewed, saying he never gives interviews before important competitions. Mark Rakita, honorary president of Maccabi Russia, who won an Olympic gold medal in fencing in 1964 in Tokyo, said that “some of the athletes may not be open about their Jewish roots,” although he added that the situation today cannot be compared to his own experience 40 years ago as a leading Russian fencer. “In my time people were hiding this, were ashamed of being Jewish. In order to be able to compete on par with the others I had to be really better than many others,” he said. Because of state anti-Semitism, Rakita said the Soviet award he received as a winner of Olympic gold was lower in status than that of other Olympic gold-medal winners. “Thankfully, this issue is over now, and the Jewish athletes in Russia don’t feel any pressure of that kind any more,” Rakita said. Sergey Tankilevich, head of the Moscow branch of Maccabi, told JTA that his group has lately been unable to find many new young athletes because of funding constraints. Maccabi Russia gets most of its budget from the Russian Jewish Congress and money has been significantly reduced in recent years, sources said. Tankilevich said many younger athletes are emigrating to Israel because diminished competition there has made it easier for aspiring athletes to “get to the top.” His own son, who at 15 was the winner of a European fencing championship, has been approached several times by representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel who want him to emigrate, Tankilevich said. A Jewish Agency official in Moscow confirmed that his group has a program for young Russian athletes who seek to combine academic studies in Israeli high schools and colleges with athletic training. Ilya Averbukh, a 2002 Olympic silver medalist in ice dancing, recalled how in the mid-1980s his Jewish coach asked him to change his Jewish-sounding last name so she would not be accused of taking only Jewish students. Averbukh says he once had an offer to move to Israel to start competing for the Jewish state. “At some point every Jewish athlete here has to choose whether to stay or to emigrate. I decided to stay,” he said. “We were among the first in our sports in Russia who were offered to move to Israel,” he said of himself and his partner and later wife, Irina Lobacheva. He added: “I don’t know if I would have been more happy if had I won the world title for Israel rather than for Russia. I was born here; this is my country. But I do have many relatives in Israel and in the United States, and I know that they support me when I compete for Russia.”