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Israel Hopes Lone Winter Olympian Will Boost Sports

January 29, 1994

METULLA, Israel (AP) _ An unusual announcement went out at the skating rink: ″It is forbidden to ice skate with a weapon. You there, take your rifle and get off of the ice.″

Israelis clearly have a way to go before they learn the social graces of ice skating and other winter recreation. But organizers of this infant sport in Israel are hoping it will get a boost by sending its first-ever competitor to the Winter Olympics.

Misha Shmerkin is also the only member of Israel’s Winter Olympic team.

That’s actually something of an accomplishment in this land of beaches, palm trees, endless sunshine and only a periodic snow cover. There are only four small rinks for ″slipping on the ice,″ as skating is known in Hebrew.

The rink in this village, perched on a mountain protruding into Lebanon, proudly displays a banner wishing Shmerkin luck. He’s not exactly a home-grown product, emigrating from the former Soviet Union three years ago.

But he’s a world class skater with a distant hope for a medal in Lillehammer. Shmerkin placed 19th at the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague, earning him a slot in the Olympics, which is limiting competition to the world’s top 24 figure skaters.

Training is a problem. Shmerkin has to travel about 4,500 miles to do it - spending most of his time at a practice center in the Ural Mountains of Russia - because there are no standard size rinks in Israel.

But Israel’s Olympic committee believes Shmerkin could be the catalyst to get other youngsters interested.

″Shmerkin’s just the match, a little flame to ignite interest in winter sports in Israel,″ said his manager, Boris Drapkin.

Born in Odessa, Shmerkin came up through the Soviet sports industry. Once here, he left his family and moved to Metulla to continue his career.

His status does not exempt him from mandatory army service that he is expected to start when he comes back from the world championships in Japan in April, Drapkin said.

Israel also considered entering a skier in the slalom competition, but he did not make the grade, said Yossi Goldberg, the mayor of this city who will accompany Shmerkin to Norway as president of Israel’s Figure Skating Association.

Goldberg said there were about 200 children in Israel with hopes of skating in international competitions one day.

Skiing also is catching on with the number of skiers in Israel jumping from 70 in 1967, when Israel captured Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights from Syria, to 50,000 today, according to Eli Sagron, manager of the ski area.

″Israel does not make enough effort for its sports programs. Most people start out well but they drop out when they are still young,″ Sagron said.

Small details like the complete lack of snow on the mountain this year compound the problem.

In skating, Goldberg said they plan to build a full-size rink next year and bring in international skaters and hockey teams.

In the meantime, a mixed crowd of students and off-duty soldiers stationed at the nearby border crossing into Lebanon glided, slipped and inched their way around the town’s ice rink. Some of the soldiers had assault rifles slung over their shoulders.

″When I first got here I only saw people walking along the hand rails,″ said Drapkin, originally from Moscow, who also manages the rink.

A former trainer for the Soviet women’s 1984 and 1988 Olympic speed skating team, he complains about the ″ignorant arrogance″ of Israelis trying to master winter sports.

″They believe: ‘I am Israeli. I am Jewish. I can do anything.’ So they get on the ice and fall flat on their faces. I tell them they have to listen, think, understand and only afterwards do. That’s what we are doing here, building a new culture of listening, thinking and then working,″ Drapkin said.

Israelis are big soccer fans, but the word does not seem to have gotten out that they have someone to root for in the Olympics.

Alex Feldman, a high school senior, curiously asked the price of ice skates but was told there were none for sale. He was directed to the shop in Ramat Gan, near coastal Tel Aviv about 160 miles away - the only place to buy ice skates in the country. He was surprised to hear an Israeli was competing in the Olympics.

″All the power to him. We are a nation that tries to push into everything,″ Feldman said. ″But I don’t know if ice skating will catch on here. It’s not for me. It’s too cold 3/8″

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