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Israel cedes Olympic ladies spot to Australia

Skater's Facebook appeal fails to change committee decision

Israeli champion Tamar Katz and her coach, Peter Burrows, at the rink in Monsey, N.Y.
Israeli champion Tamar Katz and her coach, Peter Burrows, at the rink in Monsey, N.Y. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/01/2010) - Tamar Katz may not compete at the Vancouver Olympics, but she's learned she has a lot of friends in her corner.

The three-time Israeli ladies champion gained an Olympic berth for her country with a 12th-place finish at the 2009 Nebelhorn Trophy (six ladies spots were up for grabs; Israel got one when Georgia, which had earned two entries, announced it would send just one lady, Elene Gedevanishvili, to Vancouver). But the Israeli Olympic Committee set its own criteria, a top-14 finish at the 2010 European Championships.

Suffering from a virus, Katz popped a triple Lutz in her short program and placed 21st, missing the cutoff for the free skate by four-tenths of a point.

"Unfortunately the Israeli Olympic Committee has decided to recede the Israeli spot that I earned to Australia," Katz, 21, said. "I wish the Australian girl the best of luck at the games. It's a great opportunity.

"The Israeli Olympic Committee said that they want medals and that I can compete in 2014. What they don't understand is that if they want me to medal at 2014, the crucial exposure and experience that this Olympics would have given me has been taken away. Ranking and experience are important for success in figure skating."

Athlete names and entry forms must be submitted to the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) by February 1st. After that, no entries can be transferred from one NOC member to another. Australia asked Israel to formally relinquish its spot, and is in the process of submitting the paperwork.

Katz didn't accept the decision without a fight. She set up a Facebook site, "Tamar Katz should be allowed to compete at the 2010 Olympics." Fellow skaters, coaches and fans quickly joined.

"I started it four days ago, and now its had more than 1400 members," she said. "Many of them wrote to the Israeli Olympic Committee, because I put up its contact information. I don't know if they're reading those emails, or if they're just annoyed about them and deleting them.

"It's so inspiring to know so many people care. It's been wonderful in that sense, even if it hasn't worked out on the other side."

According to Efraim Zinger, the secretary general for the Israeli Olympic Committee, the criteria should have been no surprise. "We set the target about two years ahead of time for our athletes," Zinger said in an interview with The New York Times. "Those who don't make it must stay back. Some countries' main goals are to participate, some send their athletes to win. We are interested in our athletes reaching the top."

Katz is not the first Israeli athlete to be denied an Olympic Games. In 2008 tennis player Dudi Sela qualified for a spot but failed to meet Israeli Olympic Committee criteria despite leading Israel to victory in several Davis Cup ties, including a monumental upset of Chile in 2007.

Asked whether she might continue competing until Sochi in 2014, Katz said, "It's very hard to predict what will happen four years from now, but I love to skate. It's my passion, and I plan on continuing to [2010] worlds in Torino."

Katz's Facebook supporters include 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski; two-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott; former European champion Tomas Verner; British ice dancer John Kerr; U.S. competitor Doug Razzano; and many others.

"Some of these skaters were there with me at Europeans; I spoke to Tomas and John and told them my placement determined whether I would go to the Olympics," she said.

"They were so upset for me. Everyone thinks figure skaters are rivals, but Tugba [Karademir, of Turkey] and Jenna [McCorkell, of Great Britain] are good friends and they've been so supportive. Jenna said she went through something similar [in prior years] before the British Olympic Association reduced the standards."

Katz, who was born in Dallas but raised in Israel and Washington, D.C., trains at the Sport-O-Rama in Monsey, N.Y., under Peter Burrows and Mary Lyn Gelderman, who guided the career of 1982 world champion Elaine Zayak. She placed 16th at the 2008 Europeans, but a stress fracture limited her training last season.

"I've had a difficult year," she admitted. "I competed at [2009] worlds after five months off the ice. Then there was the qualifier [Nebelhorn] in Oberstdorf, and I was fourth at the Merano Cup and fifth at Golden Spin of Zagreb.

"I was training very well before Europeans but the virus really hurt me. Since I didn't do my best at worlds last year [placing 25th] the Committee was disappointed at both competitions, so luck was not on my side."

Israel first participated in the Winter Olympics in 1994, with the lone competitor figure skater Michael Shmerkin. Ice dancers Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski placed sixth in 2002 and eighth in 2006.

For Vancouver, the team consists of three athletes: brother-and-sister ice dancers Alexandra and Roman Zaretsky, who were seventh at Europeans, and alpine skier Mikail Renzhin.

Katz is surprised her country doesn't want to field the largest possible team.

"I don't understand the decision; they say they want medals, but Israel has never had a medal in the Winter Games," she said. "Israel is a very young country. In order to inspire young children, you have to build a sports' tradition first. They have to see athletes from their country compete.

"Not to mention the Olympic creed, from Pierre de Coubertin: 'The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.'"