Israel is coming off of its best ever Olympic Games capturing a total of four medals, two Gold and two Bronze in what was an absolutely stellar showing by Israeli athletes. Whether it was in the pool, on the mat, at sea or on the track, the blue-and-white came away from Tokyo with an impressive medal haul and plenty of stories as the attention will now turn to the Paris Games in just three short years ahead.
In order to wrap-up the major storylines for Israel out of Japan, let’s hand out the awards and take a look at some of the highs, lows and question marks ahead.
Achievement award: Linoy Ashram
What can we say about Linoy Ashram? Wonder Woman, Golden girl, superstar or rockstar she all that in one. The rhythmic gymnast came into Tokyo in as good as shape as she has ever been ranked number one in the world ahead of her biggest threats the Russian Averina sisters and Belarus’s Alina Harnasko. Ashram knew before the Olympics that she was one of Israel’s heavy medal favorites and that the pressure would be on her especially on the final days of the Games in Japan. But she handled it with the ultimate professionalism knowing that an entire nation expected a medal from her and she delivered despite having to dig out of a huge qualification hole from 16th place after her first rotation in hoop. But she came back big time to qualify third and then was almost flawless in her four exercises in the finals to just come out ahead of Dina Averina. What an achievement!
Excitement award: Avishag Semberg
There is probably no one in the world who would have believed that Israel would win a medal on the first day of the competition but that’s exactly what Avishag Semberg did in taekwondo on day one of the Olympic Games. Semberg was shocked and stunned almost in disbelief as were an entire nation that a relative unknown Olympian would step into the podium and have a bronze medal around her neck so early on in the Games. Semberg celebrated excitedly and just as most youngsters would do asked for more people to follow her on Instagram and that’s what over 200,000 people did almost immediately to celebrate along with the new star. When Semberg arrived home it was to all of the pomp and circumstance but what was amazing to see what just her pure excitement around her.
Cool, calm and collected award: Artem Dolgopyat
After finishing first in the floor exercise qualification round, Artem Dolgopyat knew that he would now have to wait a week for the final. A long week, which ended up seeing the artistic gymnast almost matching his qualification score in the final itself to win Israel’s first gold medal of the Tokyo Games. The way Dolgopyat presented himself throughout the competition and after was as if he was the nice shy boy from around the block. Cool, calm and collected with not a worry in the world. Dologpyat knew what he had to do and did it to a “T” to bring home gold. Just like a quiet assassin he performed his routine to absolute perfection and snatched the top spot on the podium despite being tied for first due to his exercise’s level of difficulty. He made sure to do what he needed to to make sure that he would take the gold and did.
Disappointment award: Individual Judo
There’s no question that the biggest downer for the Israeli delegation was not being able to win at least one medal as individuals in judo. There were high hopes that a number of judokas would bring home a medal around their neck from the reining World Champion Sagi Muki to 2016 Rio bronze medalist Ori Sasson and Peter Paltchik who had been at the top of his game over the past year. However, it was not to be as each one man or woman went down in order as each day went by. To add insult to injury once Avishay Semberg had captured a bronze in Taekwando, hopes were raised sky high that the judo would see instant success raking in one medal after the next, but it was not to be. The furthest any Israeli went was to the bronze medal bout via the repechage as Baruch Shmailov and Shira Rishony were the only ones to taste as chance to win any both weren’t even thought of to be a threat.
Comeback award: Team Judo
After a miserable week likened to that of the People of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years, the Israeli judokas turned around their fortunes by coming together as a team and winning a bronze in the mixed team event. To say that this was unexpected would be an understatement after having such trouble in their individual bouts and the metal stress and anguish it caused, there was no expectations that they would find a way to bring home a medal as a team. And after the first few bouts against Italy it looked like they would definitely be coming home empty handed. However, that’s when the amazing began to happen as youngster and Olympic rookie Gili Sharir pulled the squad out of the fire and another Games first timer Timna Nelson Levy put the finishing touches on the Russian Olympic Committee to win the medal lifting a massive weight off of the entire judo delegation’s shoulders.
Surprise award: Matan Roditi
There’s no question that one of the biggest bright spots in the Tokyo Games was swimmer Matan Roditi. The Sabra doesn’t actually swim in the pool but in the sea taking part in the 10km at the end of the second week of the games. At 22-years old, Roditi surprised the entire Israeli delegation, his coach, the spectators and most importantly, himself as he had believed before the race that his swim would have been good enough for 8th place. Instead he finished just 24 seconds off a place on the podium. After coming out of the water, an astonished Roditi didn’t let the fact that he had missed out on a place on the podium higher him whatsoever and was already planning on how he would find his way to a gold medal in three years time at the Paris Games.
Determination award: Lonah Chemtai Salpeter
The Israeli marathon runner had been training for quite some time to compete at the Tokyo Olympics and hopes were high as Salpeter had been in the best shape of her career over the past couple of years. The Kenyan born runner started the race well and stayed with the lead pack in fact in the lead of throughout the marathon. However, as the race hit the 38km mark with only a handful of kilometres to go, Salpeter couldn’t keep pace and suffered painful stomach cramps in the brutal Japan heat. At that point she could have packed it in and nobody would have said a word, but Salpeter pulled herself together and was able to finish the race in dire in dire circumstances finishing 66th overall. Salpeter said afterwards that she just couldn’t see herself pulling out and did her maximum to finish what she began, determined to make her mark despite the difficulties.
Newcomer award: Anastasia Gorbenko
Israel’s pool swimmers had an excellent Olympics and that was mostly in part due to 17-year old Anastasia Gorbenko who made it into two finals as well as a semifinal which was something no other Israeli woman had done before her. At such a young age, Gorbenko has a very, very bright future ahead of her and will certainly be a medal threat in Paris 2024 in multiple categories.
Best of the rest: The Terefis, Minenko, Shanny, Shapira
The husband and wife team of Selamawit and Marhu Teferi had quite the Olympics with the former punching her ticket to the final of the 5000m and the latter finishing an impressive 13th place in the men’s marathon. Hanna Minenko advanced to her third Olympic Triple Jump final and once again gave everything she had for her adopted country of Israel despite not making it onto the podium.
Archer Itay Shanny’s first day of competition ended as most thought it would, 60th out of 64. However, nobody knew that the 21-year old as just heating up and wanted to face the best of the best in his sport which is what he did on the second day of competition easily beating the local favorite and 5th ranked archer while then disposing of one of the most experienced rivals in the sport setting up a round of 16 date which went all the way to a shoot off which Shanny eventually lost.
Omer Shapira was riding high and in the breakaway pack of cyclist for what seemed to be almost the entire road race and in fact that’s what it was, almost the entire race. But as the peloton made their mifepristone with only a few kilometres remaining, Shapira who had been so strong all day fell back and finished in 24th place which all in all was an excellent result.
Biggest test going forward award: Israeli Baseball and Equestrian
The biggest tests and question marks going forward from the Tokyo Games will be what the future of these two sports for Israel will be. The fact that both baseball and equestrian were represented in Tokyo was an amazing accomplishment, no doubt about it, but what will be the staying power for these sports in Israel down the road?
Israel baseball is a nice story and brought together Jews from all walks of life especially in America to support Israel, but will this help grow the sport in the country itself? In order for that to happen, baseball has to be a threat to win or advance to every major competition that comes along whether it’s the World Baseball Classic or the Olympic Games. Baseball won’t be played in Paris in three years time so that may also stunt the growth of the sport.
The blue-and-white may be two for two so far over the last few years in advancing to the big tourneys but there needs to be a staying power in order for locals and Israeli children to buy into the sport. Baseball fields that have been talked about and which ground has been broken at, must be built and Israel Baseball needs to find a way to make that happen with the local authorities or else the future will be bleak. If baseball wants to succeed and make an impact, more local initiatives must occur and more children need to be enrolled in little leagues. The Israel youth national team have been moving forward and it was a good sign to see a number of Sabras with the Olympic team in Tokyo. Without that backbone there is very little chance that a sport which has heavily relied on those who live outside the country to succeed.
Of course, the amount of positive publicity that the Israel baseball team was able to garner was tremendous for hasbara and that has to be complimented in painting the Holy Land in a positive light with a sport that had a reach in the United States that perhaps no other Israeli sport had.
As for Equestrian, making it to the Olympics was a tremendous accomplishment and hats have to be taken off for Ashlee Bond for advancing to a final. But they are in the same category as baseball with those living outside of the country representing the Holy Land. While it’s all nice and dandy, what is going on in this sport on a day to day basis in the country? Will we one day see local Israelis at a future Olympic Games?
If the Israel Olympic Committee is serious in wanting to see both of these sports once again on the world’s greatest sports stage, a plan needs to be put in place to ensure that the Tokyo Games were not a one-hit wonder.