Jewish athletes to compete in Athens for Argentina and Australiaby florencia arbiser, jta
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buenos aires | Olympic teams from countries outside of Israel and the United States will be notably short on Jewish athletes during the Athens Games.
Still, from weightlifting to soccer to table tennis, several Jewish athletes will be displaying the colors of their respective countries during the competition in Greece, which begins Friday, Aug. 13.
Dario Lecman, a weightlifter from Argentina, says he spent the better part of his first 16 years hanging out at the Maccabi Jewish center in Buenos Aires. It was there that he first discovered weightlifting.
"I used to spend a lot of time at the weightlifting area, because many cute girls were there, exercising their bottoms," says the 32-year-old Lecman, during an interview in Buenos Aires.
Although Lecman did not find his soul mate at the Maccabi gym, he did fall in love with weightlifting, the sport in which he will be representing Argentina at the upcoming Games.
The 210-pound Lecman qualified for the previous two Olympics. In the 1996 Atlanta Games, a last-minute sprain kept him out of the competition. Four years later, in Sydney, he competed, though residual pain from a wrist injury kept him from doing well.
Still, Lecman, who says he hopes to finish in the top eight in Athens, has had success in previous international competition. He has won gold and silver medals in the Pan American Games and was awarded Argentina's prestigious Silver Olimpias award five times.
Born of Russian and Polish Jewish roots, Lecman says that, unlike other more popular sports in which fame and fortune are draws, weightlifters live in relative anonymity.
Lecman recalls a Hebrew phrase he and his friends were taught during their days at the Maccabi center: Chazak v'ematz (Be strong and brave).
In Athens, Lecman plans to be.
After leaving Sydney, Australia, 27-year-old Gavin Fingleson has of late been playing baseball in Connecticut with the New Haven County Cutters, a team in the independent Northeast League.
But during the Olympics, he'll be donning the uniform of Australia's national team to compete on an Athens baseball diamond.
Fingleson, who is the Cutters' leading hitter, arrived in Australia from his native South Africa when he was 11 and showed great baseball talent even before his bar mitzvah.
He represented his state's junior team in baseball for four seasons before ultimately being selected for the senior team. He played for both Australia's under-16 and under-19 teams, eventually winning a baseball scholarship to Wallace State Community College in Alabama, where he earned a degree in science.
Fingleson then won another scholarship, this time at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he gained further degrees in health promotion and exercise science.
After that, he remained in the United States for three years, playing baseball professionally in Louisiana, New York and Minneapolis before being scouted and signed by a team in Taiwan.
In Taiwan, he says, "there was so much pork being offered, I lost 22 pounds in weight, restricting myself to lots of protein shakes.'
But the lure of the game was too great and he was soon back at the plate in Olympic qualifying events. He says he now is looking forward to competition in Athens, where he expects Cuba and Japan will be the major contenders for gold.
Also from Sydney, the Russian-born Sonya Chervonsky was introduced to judo when she was 15 and fell immediately in love with the sport. Now 21, she will represent Australia in Athens in this rough-and-tumble contact sport.
In the last seven years, Chervonsky has made a rapid rise in the sport's rankings and has won both junior and senior national titles.
Chervonsky, who has spent time in Slovenia and Japan fine-tuning her skills, attributes her success to her coaches. Without her love of training, she says, the Olympic goal would have been even more difficult to reach.
Tal Karp, 22, another woman from Australia, can recall being kicked off the field when she tried to get in on a boys soccer game at the Maccabi sports center in Perth when she was just 6. She sat watching the game in tears.
When soccer competition gets under way in Athens, Karp will no longer be watching; she'll be playing for Australia's national team.
A midfielder, Karp is considered one of Australia's finest players and has represented the country 23 times in international competition.
But with the Olympics just around the corner, Karp has already set herself a new goal: making the team to represent Israel, where her father was born, in the 2005 Maccabiah Games.
JTA correspondent Henry Benjamin in Sydney, Australia, contributed to this report.
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