- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

ATHENS — Gal Fridman closed his eyes and enjoyed a sweet sound never before heard at an Olympic Games — the strains of Israel’s national anthem playing in honor of the winner of a gold medal.

Fridman yesterday won the windsurfing competition at the Athens Olympics, giving the Jewish state the first gold medal of the nation’s 56-year history. As the blue-and-white flag of Israel was pulled up the flagpole, Fridman and a large contingent of Israelis sang the “Hatikvah” — The Hope.

And when the ceremony was over, Fridman dedicated his victory to some of his countrymen who weren’t there — the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

“I’m sure they’re watching us,” Fridman said, draped in an Israeli flag. “We think about them all the time. They’re always in our mind. When I get home, I will go to the memorial place for them and show them the gold medal.”

Fridman secured the gold with a second-place finish in yesterday’s decisive race, giving him the best overall performance in the 11-stage competition. Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, the Greek who lit the Olympic flame during the games’ opening ceremony, took the silver medal and Nick Dempsey of Great Britain won the bronze.

Fridman’s victory set off a storm of celebration. In Athens, fans waved Israeli flags and chanted: “Israel, ole, ole,” when he walked in for the medal ceremony. Afterward, Fridman was mobbed by exuberant Israelis, who swarmed past frantic security guards to congratulate Fridman and take photographs of the medal.

Israeli television broke into regular broadcasts to show the competition — Fridman’s mother said she was too nervous to watch — and when he crossed the finish line, Israel erupted in celebration.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav called to offer congratulations and invite Fridman for a visit, saying he wanted to give the Olympian a hug.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised Fridman in a telephone call that was relayed live on Israeli media, saying, “It was a joy to see you win and raise the Israeli flag.”

For 32 years, Israel has competed at the Olympics under the shadow of tragedy. Before each Olympics, Israel’s team visits a memorial in Tel Aviv erected in honor of those killed in Munich. It also holds a private memorial service at each Olympics.

This year’s service was attended by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. That is something his long-serving predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, never did — a fact that angered many Israelis.

Since the Munich Games, Israeli athletes have competed at the Olympics with apprehension and under extra security. In Athens, an extra fence protects Israel’s 36-athlete delegation in the Olympic Village compound, and the Shin Bet secret service watches over the team.

The Israelis say they have been greeted warmly in Athens.

The only unwelcome incident was an apparent snub by Iran’s top judo competitor, Arash Miresmaeili, who showed up overweight for his bout after reportedly saying he wouldn’t compete against an Israeli. Iran does not recognize Israel, and several of its athletes have refused to compete against Israelis in the past.

The International Judo Federation declined to penalize Miresmaeili, angering Israeli officials.

But yesterday, at least, that was forgotten in a country that had won only one silver and two bronze medals in its 12 previous summer Olympics.

“It’s very, very hard to believe that he succeeded in doing this,” said Uri Fridman, Fridman’s father and his former coach.

Uri Fridman watched yesterday’s race from the family home in central Israel. Soon after the finish, the house was filled with cheering friends and relatives.

“There is gold, there is gold,” said Uri Fridman, sipping from a bottle of champagne. “This is fantastic.”

Yaron Micaeli, the spokesman for the Israeli delegation in Athens, said more organized celebrations would wait until Fridman returns home. But it was clear that he was ecstatic.

“We have a gold medal,” Mr. Micaeli said. “What can be more than that?”

• Associated Press contributed to this report.

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