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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Sends a Russian To Skate in Olympics

JERUSALEM -- If the Caribbean island of Jamaica can have an Olympic bobsled team, then the hotbed of the Middle East, Israel, is certainly entitled to send a figure skater to the Winter Games.

Israel will be represented at the Winter Olympics by men's figure skater Mikhail Shmerkin, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.

Shmerkin, 24, arrived in Israel from the USSR in 1991 and has been striving to maintain form on a pint-sized rink in the town of Metulla where he lives.

Transplanted to a country where only a few hundred kids are involved in the sport, he received a morale boost after the 1992 Albertville Olympics when his boyhood friend and Olympic gold medalist Victor Petrenko came to visit.

The two grew up training together before Shmerkin moved with his family to Israel.

"I didn't come to Israel for the ice," Shmerkin said in a recent interview. "I just came like all the other Jews who come here."

Israel is participating for the first time ever in the Winter Olympic Games. The small country on the eastern Mediterranean coast is known as a winter haven for tourists where snow is a rare occurrence.

Figure skating isn't the only winter sport that has immigrated to Israel. Israelis trek to the occupied Golan heights to challenge the steep slopes of the only ski resort at Mt. Hermon, and a four-team national hockey league is in its fifth season.

Although no skiers passed the Israel Olympic Committee's strict standards and qualified for the Olympics, teams have traveled to several European competitions.

Israel's national ice hockey team has played in several world championships, but was not good enough to make it to the A-pool level of the Olympics.

For Shmerkin, the road to Lillehammer has been one of the most unconventional. When he arrived in Israel the largest of Israel's five skating rinks was only 30 meters by 20 meters, barely one-third Olympic size. The fledgling Israel figure skating association had no training budget and was at a loss over what to do with an Olympic level skater of Shmerkin's caliber.

What saved Shmerkin was the opening of a new sports center in the town of Metulla on the Lebanese border. The mayor saw Shmerkins' potential and provided him with ice-time and accommodation, although the only coach available was a speed-skating coach.

Practicing on the small ice rink was difficult at best, and impossible when forced into a bomb shelter during the Gulf war or due to sporadic rocket attacks from across the border.

The roof of the rink caved in during a freak blizzard two years ago that dumped a meter of snow on Metulla. It was months before the ice was back in but Shmerkin continued to keep in shape hoping for a breakthrough that would propel him ahead.

After winning the Sofia Cup competition in Bulgaria last year, Shmerkin gained the recognition and financial backing of the National Olympic Committee. Funds were found to send him abroad for training -- ironically, back to Russia.

In the 1993 European championships in Prague he finished 19th, good enough to qualify for the Olympics and make Israeli sports history.

His performance also won him an invitation to the prestigious Skate Canada competition where he finished a strong seventh.

Israeli figure skating officials are hoping Shmerkin will finish somewhere between seventh and 15th, but are convinced that just being there has given their sport a tremendous boost.