Once every four years, the world's sporting minnows swim with the big fish at the Games. Each time, a few find their way to the front. Eighty-six of the 202 teams at the Olympics had never won a medal of any color. Israel, which had managed one silver and three bronzes in its 52-year Olympic career, was one of five countries to strike Olympic gold for the first time in Athens. These teams are nowhere near the all-time tally of the U.S., which has collected nearly 900 golds. But maybe the elusiveness of Olympic laurels makes these nations' moments of glory even more, well, glorious. Their triumphs offer a rare chance to forget that trite line, trotted out each Olympiad, about how it's a victory just to be here. For once, they're the best. "In the past, you hardly saw any small nations on the medals table," says i.o.c. member Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco, whose 1984 gold in the women's 400-m hurdles in 1984 was her country's first. "It's globalization in the best sense."
Three countries earned their first medals in Athens. Eritrea swept into the global sporting elite with Zersenay Tadesse's bronze in the men's 10,000 m. Paraguay won surprising silver in the men's soccer. And the United Arab Emirates won its inaugural medal a gold when Ahmed al-Maktoum, a member of Dubai's royal family, shot to victory in the men's double trap.
Other countries that had previously won minor medals joined the golden league for the first time. Felix Sanchez gave the Dominican Republic a gold with his win in the men's 400-m hurdles. Taiwan, which competes as Chinese Taipei, won its first two golds, both in taekwondo. And on the tennis courts, Chile swept all comers to take both men's titles. First, Nicolas Mass˙ and Fernando Gonzßlez won the doubles, sparking nationwide rejoicing back home. A day later, Mass˙, who had lost all of his hardcourt matches this season before Athens, returned to defeat American Mardy Fish for the singles gold in an epic four-hour, five-set match. "To be here is enough," an emotional Mass˙ said afterwards. "To win gold ... to win two golds ..." Chilean President Ricardo Lagos was not lost for words. "All of Chile is celebrating this triumph," he said. "When we want something, we're capable of getting it."
But no team suffered as much agony as Israel before achieving golden ecstasy. At the 1972 Games in Munich, Palestinian gunmen stormed their quarters at the Olympic Village, killing 11 athletes and coaches. Every Israeli grows up hearing about the Munich martyrs, and each Olympic team pays its respects at a Tel Aviv memorial before heading off to the Games. "We don't stop," says Israeli Olympic Committee president Zvi Varshaviak. "We've been waiting a long time."
Fridman, 28, had not been favored to write the new, golden chapter to his country's somber Olympic history. He'd won a bronze in Atlanta, then failed to qualify for Sydney and quit the sport. But early retirement was not an ending the "sportaholic" could stomach, even if his stoic demeanor hid it, says his longtime girlfriend, Michal Peleg. "He doesn't like to lose. At anything. You know the saying ?the calm before the storm'? That's him and there is a storm." It stirred in 2002, when Fridman came back to the sport and won the world championship. But rumors of an arm injury helped dampen Olympic expectations, except his own.
"I have good confidence in my skills," Fridman says, and it showed out on the water. In second place going into the 11th and final race, he had racked up enough points to secure a medal, but needed some alchemy or at least some wiles to turn it gold. When regatta leader Ricardo Santos of Brazil latched onto him at the start, says Fridman, "I decided to take him where the wind was not the strongest." It was a winning move: Santos faded with the wind and couldn't keep up, whereas Fridman muscled back into a better position. "When I saw that, I said, now it's time to leave him and go." Fridman finished the race in second, good enough for gold.
For Israel, the victory was a salve for not only its painful history but also a politically fraught incident in the Games' first week. Iranian champion judoist Arash Miresmaeili, a medal favorite in the under 66-kg class, had been drawn to fight Israeli Ehud Vaks, but failed to make weight. Questions swirled about how a veteran like Miresmaeili could let this happen. Then he told a newspaper back home that it was no accident: "I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathize with the suffering of the Palestinian people."
Fridman spoke out for peace after collecting his medal, saying, "If you want to fight someone, fight in sports." But he doesn't want to talk politics. His decision to dedicate his win to the Munich dead was emotional, patriotic, but not political. "As an athlete," he says, "I don't think that should be the focus at all." Asked about Fridman's win, the Palestinians, too, tried to steer clear of politics?and only partially succeeded. Team leader Akram Zaher praised the Israeli's achievement: "He worked hard to get his medal. I just ask his government, to give the Palestinians the same chance, so that we can win medals like their athletes."
Maybe sport can heal some wounds. Shortly after his win, a fax arrived in Athens for Fridman, from the families of those who died in the Munich massacre. "Dearest Gal," it said, "we were moved to the depth of our souls that you remembered and dedicated our victory to our dear ones." To see the Israeli flag raised and to hear HaTikvah (The Hope), the national anthem, "closed a circle for us and was the realization of a dream."