Congratulations all Around, as Country Swells with Pride

Gal Fridman became the first Israeli to win a gold Olympics medal yesterday when he scored 42 points in the windsurfing event at the Athens Games. During the ceremony, the Israeli national anthem Hatikva was played at the Olympic Games for the first time, while Fridman and the dozens of Israelis in the audience sang along.

Alex Giladi, the Israeli representative on the International Olympic Committee, bestowed the medal on Fridman, who was draped in an Israeli flag. Dozens of Israelis rushed to the podium after Fridman was awarded his medal and celebrated with him. “This is a dream come true, great fun,” said Fridman after the ceremony. “There is no higher summit than this in sports.”

Fridman, whose gold medal makes him the first Israeli to win two Olympic medals, added that he also hoped to win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He won a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics. “I didn’t believe that so many people would come to the ceremony,” said Fridman. “Everyone sang Hatikva with such intensity that people were in shock, they didn’t understand where it came from.”

Fridman dedicated his victory to the 11 Israelis killed in the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics, vowing he would visit their memorial to show them his medal. “I’m sure they’re watching us,” said Fridman, who was born three years after the Israeli athletes and coaches were killed following an attack on the Olympic village in Germany by Palestinian terrorists. “We think about them all the time,” he said. “They’re always in our mind. When I get home I will go to the memorial place for them and show them the gold medal.”

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called to congratulate Fridman after the ceremony, saying, “Israel is very proud of you. An entire nation held its breath this afternoon during the last race. We were all excited to see you win. We always knew that you were worthy of a medal, and you got it. The confidence and serenity you demonstrated throughout the contest were remarkable. You are truly a great sportsman. Israel is very proud of you.” Sharon also congratulated Fridman’s trainer Gur Steinberg, and the entire team that accompanied him. “Today, Gal simply raced with a lot of confidence and he deserved this victory,” said Steinberg. “Thanks to the entire country for all its support … This shows that we can beat other countries.” President Moshe Katsav also congratulated Fridman, and invited him for a meeting to give him “a hug.”

“Gal brought much honor to the State of Israel, and much happiness to its residents,” Katsav said. Citing Fridman’s modesty and determination, Katsav said, “The citizens of the State of Israel and the Jewish people are proud of you, love you, and are happy for your impressive accomplishment, the first in the history of Israel.” Fridman’s victory brought screams of delight in shops and offices across the country. Many were glued to television sets, which repeatedly showed him crossing the finish line in triumph. “To see our flag displayed and hear our national anthem played at the awards ceremony is a moment we have long been waiting for,” team chief Gilad Lustig said.

Residents of Fridman’s hometown of Karkur, near Hadera, streamed to the family’s house to celebrate. “Gal dreamed about this, and he always succeeds,” said Fridman’s father, Uri. “This is one of the greatest moments in his life, and I’m glad he had such a major victory.” Fridman’s mother, Deganit, was waiting to hear from her son in person. “I can’t believe that he won until he tells me himself,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll rest even now. Maybe he’ll try to do it again at the next Olympics. I was tense and it was hard for me to watch the race.”

The Jewish National Fund announced yesterday that it will plant 14 trees in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest in Fridman’s honor. The number adds up to the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for gold. Education, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat’s comments punned on Fridman’s first name, which means “wave” in Hebrew. “One can say that Gal Fridman rode the wave and brought with him the entire State of Israel, filling us with great pride.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Fridman’s victory was a historic event. “This is a holiday for Israeli sports and for the State of Israel.” But perhaps Fridman himself says it best. “It feels like a dream,” he said after his victory. “It’s an amazing, indescribable feeling. I’m happy that you were all able to view the race live. I simply felt that the entire country was pushing me from behind. I suddenly felt extra energies, and I didn’t know where they came from.”