The modern Olympic Games and Jewish athletes have not had the best of relationships. Unfrtunately, due to some very un-Olympic attitudes towards race and religion the efforts of the Jewish athlete have not been always marked with acceptance and reward. For example, in the 1936 Olympics at Berlin two American sprinters (Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller) were dropped at the last minute by the coach and team management of the US 4×100 metres men’s relay team. Whilst there was no definitive evidence they were dropped because of their Jewishness, it certainly left a bad taste in these two competitor’s mouths and marred the success of Jesse Owens (winning his fourth gold medal of the Berlin Olympics after entering the team as a replacement). At those same games German Jewish athletes were either banned, ostracised or made Aryan by tacit approval (in the latter case the German female fencer Helen Mayer is the prime example), whilst Avery Brundage fought any moves for a pro-Jewish protest boycott of the Berlin Games in part due to his own anti-semitism. Under that same Nazi regime one of the first gymnastic multiple gold medallists Alfred Flatow (a prominent Jewish sports administrator immediately prior to the games) was killed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Even after the establishment of the state of Israel Jewish athletes have not fared well. The Munich massacre in 1972 has left a sad and shameful stain on the modern Olympic movement, and the 11 Israeli victims of that tragic affair can be considered the most unfortunate recipients of the most un-Olympic hate ever to have spoiled what is ideally aimed as an event that celebrates youth and peace through sport. Putting aside the politics of the background issues, with those deaths in 31 Harold Connellystrasse and at Furstenfeldbruck airstrip in 1972 the Olympic Games was again the setting for unacceptable anti-semitism, and this in turn could be argued to have contributed to Israeli attitudes to the games.
Yet whatever the political and social cost, the discrimination and the mistrust, Jewish athletes have attended the Olympics year after year, and Israel itself has been to every summer games from Helsinki up to Athens (except for Moscow) since 1952. However in all those games not one gold medal was ever won by an Israeli athlete. It took until 1992 and Barcelona, when female judoka Yael Arad won silver in the women’s half middleweight final, for an Israeli Olympian to win even a medal of any type. Therefore with such a sad history of maltreatment for Jewish athletes and little success for the Israeli Olympic teams over history, the achievement of Gal Fridman at Athens must be considered as one of the great moments in Olympic history.
Fridman was already successful as an Israeli Olympian going into the men’s sailboarding regatta at Athens, having previously won a bronze at the Atlanta games in the same event. Unfortunately a lack of success in the lead up to Sydney saw him not participate there. Almost quitting the sport and even turning to sports like cycling, he returned to the Mistral sailboard by 2002. He then went on to medal at world championships leading up to 2004, thus entering the Athens games he was one of the favourites. Amongst his lead challengers were Niklos Kaklamanakis, the Greek gold medallist in 1996 and lighter of the cauldron at the Athens opening ceremony, and the Brazilian Ricardo Santos. In Fridman’s favour was the fact he had trained regularly at the Agios Cosmas sailing venue, plus perhaps superstitiously Gal’s name in Hebrew means ‘wave’.
The mistral sailboarding event in Athens consisted of 11 faces, with one result to be dropped from the overall competition assessment. Fridman sailed consistently, and prior to the final race was in second place behind the Brazilian Santos, having had two first places and only one recorded placing lower than fifth. To win gold he needed to finish five places above Santos, whilst keeping an eye on Kaklamanakis. Appropriately, Fridman’s tactics meant he kept pace with Santos until, utilizing a wind change the Israeli bolted from the Brazilian, surging into second place. Santos tried to then stay with the Greek, but Kaklamanakis also outpaced the young Brazilian, with the three leading contenders now behind British sailboarder Nick Dempsey.
At the final post of the eleventh race of the Mistral event in Athens Dempsey came in first, which did no harm to Fridman’s or Kalklamanakis’s rankings and actually promoted the British sailor into the bronze position. Fridman came in second, waving his arms in the air celebrating his overall victory on points before diving into the waters with his coach, brother and the female Israeli Mistral entrant Lee Korvits. Gal Fridman had snared the gold coming from behind Santos, with an overall result 10 points better than silver medallist Kaklamanakis.
As the whole of Israeli watched that final race, then celebrated Fridman’s victory the memory of past sadness and the fate of Jewish Olympians was still present, adding more meaning to the gold medal than even its status of being the first for Israel. Gal Fridman made certain that the victims of the Munich massacre were in his thoughts:
“I hope they are happy up there…When I return to Israel I will go to their memorial place and show them the gold medal.”
Later in the evening of August 25th, 2004 Fridman, Kalkamanakis and Dempsey were presented their medals. Alex Gilady, long time IOC delegate from Israel was there to hang the gold around Gal Fridman’s neck and then, for the first time in Olympic history Israel’s national anthem the Hatikva was played and the blue Star of David flag raised above those of Greece and of the United Kingdom. After 52 years of waiting, after 11 tragic deaths and 108 years of mistrust, anti-semitism and minimal acceptance from an Olympic movement which supposedly has higher ideals, a Jewish Israeli Olympian had won gold.