TOKYO – Every major Israeli athletic achievement gladdens our hearts, whether it’s Israel’s first Olympic gold, won by windsurfer Gal Fridman in at the 2004 Olympics, or the national team’s silver in the 1979 European championship in basketball. However, Artem Dolgopyat’s Olympic gold in gymnastics on Sunday is the greatest Israeli sporting achievement of all time.
First, while an achievement in a popular sport makes more of an impression, only Dolgopyat and Fridman can say they’re “the world's best,” which is somehow the essence of professional sports. However, unlike Fridman, Dolgopyat achieved this in a particularly important, prestigious and competitive sport.
This is not meant to detract from Fridman’s achievement, but windsurfing isn't a mainstream event, not in professional sports in general or the Olympics in particular.
Gymnastics, however, is considered one of the Olympics’ three so-called core disciplines, along with athletics and swimming. Indeed, largely thanks to Simone Biles, gymnastics has become more important than swimming, crowning Dolgopyat as the best in the world in one of the two most important disciplines at the Olympics.
While gymnastics isn’t popular like soccer, in Olympic terms, it’s one of the most important sports out there. Just have a look at countries whose athletes competed against Dolgopyat in the final – the United States, Russia and China – the biggest of them all, alongside other powerhouses like Spain and South Korea.
All of these countries invest enormous resources in identifying and training gymnastics talent. But Dolgopyat, despite coming from a country that has a far less developed sports culture and invests far fewer resources, somehow managed to defeat them all.
Moreover, a gold in gymnastics has a cachet that even most of the golds in the Olympics’ other core disciplines lack. Whereas 48 gold medals are awarded in athletics and 35 in swimming, just 14 are awarded in gymnastics, and only seven in men’s individual events.
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Thus, Dolgopyat is one of the seven biggest names worldwide in men’s gymnastics right now.
Again, none of this detracts from the sporting achievements of other Israelis. Without the successes of Tal Brody and Miki Berkovich for both Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club and the national team, Israelis would never even have turned on their televisions, and Israel's sports culture would lag even further behind.
Without Fridman and Yael Arad, whose silver in judo in 1992 was Israel’s first Olympics medal ever, Israel wouldn’t have developed the Olympic sports apparatus that produced Dolgopyat.
Dolgopyat stands on all of their shoulders and those of many other athletes not mentioned here. And now, he’s at the top of the pyramid.
Not only is this modest gymnast at the pinnacle of the Israeli pyramid in this Olympics, but he is also at the pinnacle of Israeli sports.
With half the Olympics still to go, Israel has already racked up unprecedented achievements. First, it already got three medals – its highest number ever – thanks to its mixed team’s bronze in judo and Avishag Semberg’s bronze in taekwondo.
It has also made the finals in two athletic events and two swimming events and has had several chances at a medal – windsurfer Yoav Cohen, for instance, came in fourth, while two judokas finished fifth in their events. Other athletes have done surprisingly well in events in which Israel has never competed before, like archery and road cycling.
With seven days remaining, gymnast Linoy Ashram, 2020 European champion, will try to snatch another medal for Israel, as well as the rhythmic gymnastics team and marathon runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter
However, it’s already Israel's best Olympics ever. Now, a question is posed to Israel's officials. Will the Sports Ministry, the Israel Olympic Committee, the various sporting associations, local governments and, above all, the Education Ministry can take advantage of this one-time tsunami and march Israel forward?
On its way to a gold medal in Gymnastics, Israel defeated some of the world's sporting powerhouses, but will it be able to take advantage of this achievement?