SEOUL, South Korea -- The Israeli Olympic team gave up its best chance for a medal because athletes and officials refused to compete on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the team's coach said Wednesday.
The five-member fencing team -- including Udi Karmi who finished fourth in the floret in last year's world championships -- are not at the Olympics because they would have been required to compete on Sept. 21, said Itzchak Benmelech, the Israeli head coach.
'They are very disappointed,' Benmelech said. 'They worked hard for four years, but it was impossible.'
'They are the best athletes in Israel. They were our best hope for a medal.'
Benmelech said Israel never considered breaking from tradition and competing on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish religion.
The scheduling conflict has also caused problems for Israel's gymnastics, shooting and yachting teams.
The athletes must decide whether to risk harming their chances by going without food on the traditional day of fasting from sunset on Sept. 20 until sunset the next day. Benmelech said the decision is up to each competitor.
The Israeli women's gymnastics team is scheduled for competition later that evening and the shooting team's air pistol and small-bore rifle events are the next day.
'I have to decide about fasting,' said shooter Itzchak Yonassi. 'I have to think about it.'
Yonassi's coach, Yair-Henrik Dawidowich, said the shooting team was nearly forced to miss the Olympics along with the fencing team. By a quirk of scheduling, the team competes on the two days before the holiday and the day after.
'The schedule is coming from upstairs,' Dawidowich said, pointing to the heavens.
The yachting team will observe Yom Kippur by using its optional day off in the seven-day event. But the team gives up a competitive edge because it cannot select its off-day according to wind and weather conditions, as will other teams.
'So they hope that on this day there will be a big storm,' said Raphael Naeh, a sports writer for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Naeh, chairman of Israel's Association of Sports Journalists, said that the loss of the fencing team was a major blow to Israel's athletic program.
'It will kill fencing in Israel for years to come,' he said. 'They are very angry.'