An Israeli Gold Medalist in Europe, but Still Anonymous

Gymnastics excites millions worldwide, but in Israel Alex Shatilov gets minimal attention. Will anything change?

After three World Championship bronze medals, two bronze and a silver in the European Championships and countless other awards, Alex Shatilov’s career reached a new high Saturday. He won gold in the floor exercise of the European Gymnastics Championships in Moscow, finishing with 15.333 points to tie with Great Britain’s Max Whitlock in the final.

Such a career in a different country, one with a more advanced and varied sporting agenda, would have turned the gymnast into a social icon and a regular participant in television talk shows and gossip columns. Yet here in Israel he is barely at the edge of public consciousness. Why? Beyond the basic premise that team ball games take preference over individual disciplines, most Israelis simply cannot fathom how great his achievement is. They do not appreciate how beautiful and challenging gymnastics are, and are not interested in a sport devoid of interpersonal tensions, scandals and machismo.

Gymnastics has millions spellbound in most countries and is considered one of the three central sports in the Olympic Games. But it is diametrically opposed to the needs of the Israeli sports fan, not to mention those who write about sport. It lacks lush green turf, sweaty wooden parquets, or the overflowing spectator stands of commercial sports stadiums − just wonderful acrobatic feats, flexibility and coordination, and displays of extraordinary physical prowess.

On Shatilov’s return to Israel, the sports minister and other functionaries will doubtless greet him on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and croissants and fresh fruit will be served in the plush offices of the Olympic Committee of Israel. He will smile and not mention even once the hard work, the treatment of an athlete who represents a country that does not traditionally get upgraded by referees, the ridiculous stipend he receives for being such an athlete and his need to depend on good people like Maccabi Haifa soccer team owner Ya’akov Shahar.

It remains to be seen how, or if, Shatilov’s historic first gold medal will affect him and the country’s sporting agenda. Last summer, following a deluge of optimistic headlines and expectations, the hypocritical national sentiment was that sixth in an Olympic final represented failure. But the spirit of the country’s best athlete brought him back to the top of Europe. Yet still we’re not interested. Wake us up when he brings a medal home from Rio in 2016.