Israel hopes London is paved with gold


The 2012 London Olympic Games start exactly five weeks today. In the first of a series of dedicated features, we profile five leading men from the Israel squad.

● Shahar Zubari
Sport: Windsurfing
Date of birth: September 1, 1986
Born: Eilat
Honours: Olympic bronze medallist, World Championship bronze medallist, several titles at junior world level

Israel's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in London, Shahar Zubari, was given the honour after winning the bronze medal in the Neil Pryde men's windsurfing at the 2008 Olympics - the only medal that Israel brought home from Beijing.

He has made waves in a sport that he took up aged seven and by 14 he had won the World Windsurfing Championships for boys. Zubari won the under-17 World Championships in 2002 and added a silver at the World Youth Championships two years later.

With only one competitor from each country allowed in windsurfing at the Olympics, Zubari had to beat Athens gold medallist Gal Friedman to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. He eventually did so by winning the bronze medal at the World Championships in 2008, several months before taking the Olympic bronze in China.

Qualifying for the London Olympics has been no easier as Zubari was required to fight off a challenge from Nimrod Mashiah. A gold medal in a recent grand prix event in Holland saw him edge out Mashiah and enabled Zubari to become the first-ever Israeli to qualify for two consecutive Olympics.

Zubari said: "For me it's been a very long and hard campaign to reach the Olympics, but all the effort would have been a waste of time if it doesn't finish well in London."

● Alex Shatilov
Sport: Gymnastics
Date of birth: March 22, 1987
Born: Uzbekistan
Honours: 2011 European silver medallist, 2009 European and World Championships bronze medallist, World Cup 2008 gold medal

Alex Shatilov, 25, is an artistic gymnast who specialises in the floor exercise competition, but also competes in the all-round competition. Born in Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union, he was identified as a sporting prodigy at the age of five and attended elite sports boarding schools from age 12. He immigrated to Israel in 2002 with his mother, Ela, a former gymnast and professional gymnastics coach, and today they live in Ashkelon.

After finishing seventh and fifth in the floor exercises in the World Championships in 2006 and 2007, Shatilov only managed a disappointing 29th place at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But he bounced back the following year, winning bronze medals in the floor exercise in the European and World Championships.

In 2010 he suffered a serious knee injury but returning late in the year, Shatilov managed a fourth place finish in the World Championships. Last year, he consolidated his claim for an Olympic medal with a silver medal at the European Championships and another bronze medal in the World Championships.

Shatilov said: "I've been satisfied with my performances in recent competitions, but I'm going to have to work very hard on some of my weaknesses.

"I know in London I'm going to have to be more precise and much sharper if I want to come home with a medal."

● Ariel (Arik) Ze'evi
Sport: Judo
Born: Bnei Barak
Honours: 2004 Olympics bronze medallist, four-time European gold medallist, 2001 World Championship silver medallist

Arik Ze'evi, 35, is the biggest celebrity in the Israel squad. He will be competing in his fourth Olympics in the 100kg category having won a bronze medal in Athens in 2004.

He has leveraged a successful sports career to become a TV personality - anchoring and hosting sports programmes and also completed a law degree at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre. He was born and raised in Bnei Brak and today lives in Tel Aviv with his wife Ravit and their two children.

Ze'evi first rose to prominence in 1999 when he finished fifth at the World Championships and won the bronze medal in the European Championships. He finished fifth at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and after winning bronze in Athens, Ze'evi disappointed in Beijing, losing early in the competition.

He struggled to regain his form after Beijing and the assumption was that Ze'evi would retire. But the Israeli surprised pundits by winning the gold medal at the European Championships earlier this year – for the fourth time. His only World Championships medal was a silver in 2001. Currently ranked eighth in the world in his category, Ze'evi is eager to retire with another Olympic medal.

He said: "I'm always one to imagine all sorts of scenarios, from the most optimistic that I'll return home with a gold medal to the cruelest of situations.

"I was on the point of retiring after Beijing, so to come back the way I have has been a real challenge."

● Gideon 'Gidi' Kliger
Sport: Sailing
Date of birth: March 30, 1980
Born: Tel Aviv
Honours: silver and bronze European medallist, World Youth gold medallist

Gideon Kliger will be sailing in his third Olympics in the 470-class two-person dinghy but this time with a new partner. Kliger, 32, competed in Athens and Beijing with Udi Gal - finishing a disappointing 15th and 14th respectively. Gal has since retired but Kliger, having teamed up with Eran Sela before 2009, the duo are considered an outside chance for a medal having won bronze and silver medals at the European Championships over the past two years.

Kliger and Gal first shot to fame back in 1998 when they won the World Youth Championships. In 2001 they went on to win the silver medal at the European Championships. Between 2006 and 2008, Kliger and Gal took three straight bronze medals in the World Sailing Championships but ultimately were unable to translate this consistent form into an Olympic medal.

Gal had had enough, so in stepped Sela to fill the breach. Kliger carried on where he had left off with Sela and the new pair won back-to-back bronze medals at the European Championships in 2010 and 2011.

Kliger said: "We are very focused on succeeding and winning a medal."

● Jonatan Kopelev
Sport: Swimming
Born: Haifa
Honours: 2012 Euro gold medallist

Jonatan Kopelev, 20, is the youngest member of Israel's Olympic squad. Born in Haifa, he swims for the Maccabi Haifa swimming team and rose to prominence only last month when he became the first-ever Israeli to win the gold medal in the European Championships in the 50m backstroke.

It appeared that Kopelev was set for heartbreak as the 50m is not recognised at Olympic level but only a week after his performance in Hungary, he won a gold medal in a grand prix competition in Slovenia, completing the 100m backstroke in a personal record of 54.38 seconds and meeting the criteria to swim in London set by the Israeli Olympic Committee.

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