For Israel, a first gold medal and affirmation of statehood

Windsurfer wins a series of races, and pays homage to Israeli athletes slain in Munich in 1972.

Israel savored its first-ever Olympic gold medal as windsurfer Gal Fridman won the men's mistral sailing competition in Greece, triggering an spurt of national pride in a country suffering from four years of daily violence with the Palestinians and an economic slump.

After jumping in the water for a victory dip, Mr. Fridman - whose first name means "wave'' in Hebrew - climbed back onto his surfboard and wrapped himself in the Israeli flag.

In a country that sees its existence perpetually threatened and under diplomatic siege, the anticipation of hearing its national anthem - "Hatikvah" or "the hope'' - represents a visceral assertion of its presence on the world stage.

"I feel like I'm in a dream,'' the website of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot quoted Fridman as saying. "An entire country was pushing me.''

Success at the Olympics has been rare for the 56-year old Jewish state, which won its first medal only 12 years ago at Barcelona and had claimed only four medals ever before Wednesday. The Olympic games also churn up dark memories for Israelis. At the 1972 Olympics, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September.

Israel's 36-member delegation to Athens marked the biggest ever, inflating expectations as well as pressure on the Israeli squad. "We've shown that Israelis too can win in the world," said Fridman's coach, Gur Shternberg.

The race was carried live on Israel's public television and state-run radio. Israeli President Moshe Katsav congratulated Fridman and invited him for a meeting to give him a "hug," the Associated Press reported.

Fridman, who won a bronze eight years ago in Atlanta, clinched the Olympic gold by placing second in the last race of the 11-leg windsurfing regatta. His margin of victory on secured him first place overall.

With hands clasped over her mouth and eyeballs bulging, Miri Arieli watched Fridman sail his way down the homestretch of the race from the soccer-betting house she manages with her husband, Moshe, in a Tel Aviv suburb. Passersby normally interested in soccer now asked questions about whether the Israeli windsurfer would win the gold. When "gold medal" flashed on the screen, the tension turned into celebrations.

Yair Galily, a sports sociologist at Israel's Wingate Institute for Athletics, said the victory will accelerate a trend in which individual athletic achievement is becoming more appreciated by Israelis. Historically associated with political movements, the Israeli sports clubs have become more professional and commercial in the last 10 years, he said.

"The obsession with politics and news caused sports to be marginal,'' he said.

For two years through May, few international sporting events were held in Israel after athletes and coaches lobbied to move competition elsewhere for fear of terrorist attacks.

"This is the best answer to suicide bombings,'' said Moshe Arieli. "Showing the whole world by winning in athletics, without violence and without aggressiveness.''

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