Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

The 2004 Olympics Athletes from Former Soviet Union Carry Israeli Hopes to Athens Games

June 28, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Katya Pisetsky’s legs extend into a backhand walkover. Then she spins in a circle, tosses a pair of clubs 30 feet in the air, catches them, glides into a final, triumphant pose and flashes an electric smile. The Latin-style background music stops and the rhythmic gymnast’s smile melts instantly into a frown.

Pisetsky, 18, is going to the Olympics in just two months and her coach, Natasha Asmolov, is berating her in a mixture of Russian and Hebrew for not extending her arm far enough, for not holding her back straight enough, for not feeling the music enough.

Watching from a nearby wooden bench are Pisetsky’s ballet trainer and sports psychologist, who also have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Immigrant athletes from the former Soviet Union make up about half of the team Israel is sending to the Athens Games in August, bolstering the country’s Olympic hopes and the Israeli identity o! f the newcomers.

Many of the coaches and the medical staff are also immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“Immigrants from Russia have given sports an amazing boost because so many of them are already professionals in their field,” says Asmolov, 43.

There are 36 Israeli athletes on the Olympic team, 15 of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are also two marathon runners who are immigrants from Ethiopia — the first time Ethiopian immigrants have been represented on the Israeli Olympic team. Israelis are competing in 11 events: track and field, judo, wrestling, tae kwon do, tennis, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, kayaking, swimming, windsurfing and target shooting.

Since March the immigrant athletes on the Olympic team have been receiving a monthly stipend of $1,500 from the Jewish Agency for Israel to help support them financially while they train. The stipend will continue through December.

The Jewish Agency has been raising funds! for the project together with the United Jewish Communities.

Some of the best prospects for an Israeli medal rest with Pisetsky’s fellow athletes from the former Soviet Union: Canoe/kayaker Michael Kolganov, who won the bronze in 2000 in Sydney, will again be competing, as will wrestler Gocha Tsitsiashvili, who has won a world championship, and Alex Averbuch, a pole vaulter who has won a European championship.

Asmolov trains Pisetsky, who came to Israel in 2001, with the same stringent methods Asmolov grew up on in Belarus, where she competed as part of the national team.

The pair train about eight hours a day, with a focus on exacting precision and discipline.

Stretching out after her morning practice, Pisetsky, whose shoulder-length blond hair is tied back into a ponytail, says that the most exciting moment of her life was landing in Israel for the first time from her native Ukraine.

The second most exciting moment, she says, was placing 10th in the European Rhythmic Gymnastic Championships in Kiev, where she qualified t! o compete for Israel at the Athens Olympics.

Pisetsky’s Ukranian friends were there “to root for me, and all of my former coaches. It was fun,” she says. As she stood under the Israeli flag, she says she did not feel at all torn as to where home was. “I felt Israeli.”

Next year she will be drafted into the army. As a top athlete, she will be able to divide her time between training and soldiering.

Efraim Zinger, the head of the Israeli Olympic Committee, says athletics are proving to be an excellent way for immigrants and native-born Israelis to get to know each other.

“Top athletes become role models both to native-born Israelis and Russians,” Zinger says. “Sports is an excellent vehicle to help the process of absorption into Israel.”

Zinger also noted that many of the immigrant athletes did not come here as ready-made world class athletes, but have benefited from expert training — often from fellow immigrant coaches.

Pisetsky has been an athlete! since she was 6 years old.

In Ukraine, she went to one of the bes t sports academies in the country, a boarding school where she combined training and academic subjects. But it is better to live in Israel, she says.

Sports helps in feeling more Israeli, she says. It was at the gym for rhythmic gymnastics — a combination of dance and traditional gymnastics — in Petach Tikva where she learned Hebrew and made her first Israeli friends.

Asmolov, wearing an Israeli Olympic team T-shirt and track pants, directs Pisetsky with a combination of toughness and tenderness.

Walking onto the mat in one of the training gyms at the Wingate Sports Center, she positions Pisetsky’s arms and demonstrates how to fully twist her body to accentuate one of the moves in the routine.

In 1990, Asmolov immigrated to Israel from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and soon after opened the Petach Tikva municipality’s rhythmic gymnastics center, where Pisetsky trains. Pisetsky knew she wanted to continue her career when she immigrated to Israel so she and h! er family moved to the city, which is outside of Tel Aviv, to be close to the gym.

Asmolov is grateful to Petach Tikva for giving her the chance to create a gym for rhythmic gymnastics that is the first high-level gym for the sport in Israel.

As many as 250 girls now train there. There are 10 coaches, all of whom immigrated from the former Soviet Union. Members of the club have participated in seven world championships — and Pisetsky is the second member to be going to the Olympics.

“Israel is now on the world and European map,” Asmolov says.

But the road has been hard and marred by cultural differences. There were complaints in the early days, she says, that she and her staff were pushing the girls too hard.

At first, she says, people did not understand “the long hours in the gym, the fanaticism,” she says, adding, “but if they want to reach success at an international level and see results, there is no other way.”

Asmolov has utilized the Russian ! training framework — not just a coach and a gymnast, but also a psych ologist, a masseuse, physiotherapists and a dietician.

There are still problems with creating top-flight athletes in Israel, she says.

“It’s a small country with lots of problems. It cannot compete with a country like Russia in terms of money that go toward sports and the tradition behind it, but we need to invest in sports on the same level other small countries do.”

Pisetsky, meanwhile, says she is looking forward to representing Israel.

“Seeing the Israel flag and hearing the Hatikvah, that is what moves me most.”

Recommended from JTA