Mixed Fortunes in Olympics Do Not Bode Well for Future of Israeli Sport

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Yarden Gerbi kisses her bronze medal for judo in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Yarden Gerbi kisses her bronze medal for judo in the 2016 Summer Olympics.Credit: Kai Pfaffenbach, Reuters

RIO – Two bronze medals in judo do not make Israel a sports-world power, not even a judo empire (it ranks 18th in the world, based on the achievements in Rio), just as returning from the London Games with no medals did not mean that Israeli athletes brought shame to their blue-and-white uniforms. It’s not the manic peaks nor depressive lows but rather a few isolated talents that were aided by a hugging family, finding excellent trainers and fulfilling their exceptional talent at the most important moments of their lives.

These weren’t athletes appearing out of the blue but ones who grew up in the world of judo, the only sporting branch that combines depth, high quality and a tradition of achievements. Here’s a revelation that will surprise you – where there is systematic groundwork led by professionals (Shani Hershko, Oren Smadja) there are achievements, even when internal politics are sometimes hard to stomach. It’s so simple, much more than winning a medal.

These bronze medals, along with other prominent achievements at the Rio 2016 Games, accurately illustrate the state of achievement sports in Israel. The identity of the winners is similar to what we’ve seen in the past. There are no surprises coming out of nowhere. One medal went to Yarden Gerbi, the most natural candidate to reach the podium with impressive achievements over the last four years, and the strongest and most identifiable Olympic brand here.

The other medal went to Ori Sasson, unknown to most readers until two years ago, but one who reached Rio on an impressive momentum, with a silver medal at the European Championship and the Masters Tournament. Gerbi and Sasson, like most other Israeli medallists, achieved their victories on their first appearance at the Games. “You don’t need more – you have an opportunity so you take it,” said Gerbi with a smile, shattering the myth that early experience at the venue is necessary for winning.

We’re not as bad as we were at the London Games, and don’t deserve much more than the two exciting bronze medals. The Israeli team had eight-nine realistic medal contenders, with two winning and four coming close – judoka Sagi Muki, the rhythmic gymnastics team and two other athletes whose radiance hides two sporting branches in decline: gymnast Hanna Minenko and windsurfer Maayan Davidovich.

Before the London Games, the Olympic Committee of Israel set goals which in retrospect were pretentious and unfocused – firstly winning a medal, having a female winner and winning in a new event. The team returned without any medals, after a promising Olympic cycle.

This time, with new leadership at the OCI and following the bruises from London, more modest goals were set – one medal and 10 finalists. It ended with a modest success: two medals, seven finalists and a few refreshing appearances of athletes such as triathlete Ron Darmon and golfer Laetitia Beck, who represented their sports for the first time at this event, far from the limelight of the Olympic Park and returning with better-than-expected results.

In terms of reputation and the media, the early medals in judo took the pressure off the heads of the delegation, who were concerned about returning from Rio empty-handed. The two successive and exciting wins prevented any rapid head-chopping, making redundant the use of hackneyed terms such as failure, humiliation or shame, depicting Israel’s appearance more pleasantly. In contrast, subsequent performances should urge leaders of Israel’s sports world to return home and immediately consider essential changes. It’s easier to so without a tight noose around one’s neck.

The rhythmic gymnastic team made it to the final round for the third consecutive time, with six different gymnasts each time. Even if some of these amazing gymnasts retire and if Neta Rivkin ends her career after three Olympiads, there will be others to fill their slender shoes. The team, which only two months ago took a bronze medal in Europe, trailed behind five European teams in Rio. Judging this sport is subjective, political and fluid. In judo things are working well too. Most of the team is apparently continuing to Tokyo, with a promising backup team.

The big defeats came in core events such as swimming and track. A final for Yaakov Tomarkin or a medal for Minenko would only have blurred the dismal situation and postponed the reevaluation that is so necessary.

Tomarkin already made it to the finals in 2012, as did Eitan Orbach in 2000. Since then, Israeli swimming has been at a standstill or even receding internationally. One can complain about the lack of regulation-size pools or a missing air conditioner, but most swimmers came to Rio in poor form. Except for Gal Nevo and possibly Zohar Shikler none of them approached their personal best achievements. The team’s coach Leonid Kaufman was hoping for one final and two semifinals. We ended up with a single semifinal, based on 0.03 seconds. The situation ahead of Tokyo isn’t great either. It’s not the achievements, it’s the sense of standing still and shabbiness. Like in athletics, it will take a long time to foster a new and excellent generation.

The queen of sports also disappointed. The middling achievements were accompanied by dubious stories about the conduct of the heads of the association, such as embracing Katja Goldring’s marathon win even though she doesn’t represent Israel, the rapid granting of citizenship to Alexander Drigol with his drug record, and sloppy monitoring of Marharyta Dorozhon who ultimately didn’t go.

Minenko was inspiring. She recovered from an injury and swept to her best achievement this year, performing well in the final stages, as she did in last year’s World Championship. Otherwise, Israeli athletics cannot be pleased with itself. It’s not about individuals but about an exasperating situation – we cannot raise good athletes here and often rely on ones who arrived here after being raised elsewhere, marrying Israeli partners.

Israel’s marathon runners are charming people with wonderful life stories, but most of them reached Rio after an easing of required qualifications, which ended up bloating the delegation compared to previous Games. Instead of the athletes improving, the standards were lowered.

Sailing did also not do so well, even though it used to bring Israel medals. Lately, international achievements have been poor in comparison to earlier years. Davidovich, who won bronze medals in 2013 and 2014, was the only one to give an impressive performance. Shahar Tzuberi, despite his wonderful personality, was unable to get results for his second Olympiad. More surprising was the 470 sailing event in which Israel used to excel, but in which it did very poorly this time. Expectations before the Games turned out to be totally unrealistic.

One explanation was that many youth competitors who’ve done really well in European and World Championships have left the field before reaching the adult stage.

Miri Regev’s rush to announce an increased budget for judo misses the point. The problem in Israeli sports is not the amount allocated for judo but a conceptual one, much more complex than an empty declaration about money which garners numerous likes on Facebook. Correct planning and an investment in coaches, while building infrastructure, are the key, so that in 12 or 16 years we’ll have a competitive cadre we can be proud of.

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