With all due respect - and there is respect - to sailing, judo and even kayaking, all events in which Israel captured Olympic medals and other titles, these are niche sports. The average Israeli viewer would not watch these sports during the Olympics unless there was a local competitor to root for.
Gymnastics is an entirely different matter altogether. It is a sport that rivets hundreds of millions of people from all corners of the globe irrespective of the names of the competitors and the countries they represent.
During every Olympic Games over the course of the last few decades, my mother would watch men's and women's gymnastics long before anyone would dream that an Israeli representative would score a medal. Simply, gymnastics is a beautiful sport and an important one which arouses people's interest like no other.
As such, the milestone set on Saturday by Israel's Alexander Shatilov at the World Championship in London is one of the most impressive in Israeli sports of recent years. The persistence that he displayed and his continued improvement throughout his career - which includes appearances in the the Olympic finals, a medal at the European Championship, and now a bronze at the World Championship, among other championship tourneys - are very good news for Israeli sports, particularly at a time when the national soccer teams are embarrassing themselves on the pitch, the basketball teams are a disgrace, and other sports find themselves in dire straits.
Thus, Shatilov now becomes Israel's great Olympic hope for the 2012 summer games in London. His remarkable feat, which took place in the same arena in which the Olympic gymnastics competition will be held, instills hope for another history-making victory, one that would hold much more significance in another three years.
Shatilov is not just relatively tall for a gymnast (while his height makes it more difficult for him to maneuver on the mat, he does offer the judges an impressive presence), but he is also mature. Immediately after his set in the finals of the Beijing Olympics, which he reached due in large part to two of his competitors falling during their performance, the specter of his victory generated a buzz among the Israeli journalists and spectators.
He was then overcome by emotion, and as a result stepped out of bounds during his next appearance. He finished the competition in eighth (last) place.
He offered no excuses. He didn't blame anybody. Nor did he complain. With a tear in one eye and a wide smile on his face, exhibiting an attitude that made it immediately clear that this is not an athlete that was educated in Israel, Shatilov declared: "It is my fault alone."
Instead, he spoke of the future, of the upcoming European Championships (in which he promised a medal, and delivered), and the World Championships (in which he was hopeful for a medal, and won). He did not mention the 2012 Games, but one can certainly begin that conversation today.
This optimistic lad, whose voicemail message says, "If this is bad news, talk now. If this is good news, then leave a message after the beep," not only promises, but also delivers.
He also has the ability to keep on smiling and maintain his optimism. Israeli gymnastics can also keep on smiling.
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