Or Sasson's Bronze Medal Brings Israeli Judo Back to Its Glory

Some people can't leave the losses of the first two days in Rio alone, but now it’s two medals and counting.

Judoka Or Sasson celebrating his bronze-medal win in Rio, August 12, 2016.
Reuters / Murad Sezer

“Gentle giant” is a pretty worn-out cliché to describe a big grappler with a good soul and fine character, but Or Sasson really is that way. He’s six foot three with over 100 kilos (220 pounds) of muscle and a usually stubble-covered face, but he’s sensitive and warm.

Like every Olympian, he has worked hard from a young age. Like every Olympian, he has had his ups and downs. Live every Olympian, he has dreamed of a medal. But unlike most Israeli Olympians, he has made his dream come true.

When the giant wept at his victory, it was a moving end to the road that led this Jerusalemite to an Olympic medal. It was the story of the guy who kept his cool even when the Egyptian whom he beat earlier in the day wouldn’t shake his hand. But Sasson’s story is also the story of a few other people who made him not only an Israeli judo champion or a European runner-up, but an Olympic bronze winner.

It’s the story of his older brother, Alon, a very good judoka in his own right, who didn’t compete for a few years because of political intrigues. The two brothers trained together and even competed against each other.

It’s the story of Sasson’s trainer, Oren Smadja, who came from a judo family and who on a Friday night 24 years ago won a surprise Olympic medal. Now he’s a fine trainer and a good leader. It’s also the story of the officials at the Israel Judo Association, who have been maligned but showed in Rio they know how to do a few things right.

And of course it’s the story of Sasson himself, his physical prowess and low body-fat ratio a major advantage when pitted against heavy competitors. It’s also the story of Sasson’s choice to compete in the highest weight category, even though the unbeatable Teddy Riner of France was there. In their semifinal match, Sasson stayed alive until the final seconds, reflecting his sacrifice, training, investment, maturity and faith.

Judo, which has given Israel two medals in the Rio games (after Yarden Gerbi won the bronze in women's 63 kilogram class) and five out of the nine Israeli Olympic medals, will return in glory from Rio. But it seems people can’t leave the losses of the first two days alone.

Some of these people simply don’t understand, so they shouldn’t talk about sports. Some are people under the influence of others, but some are bad-mouthing Israelis for no reason.

I’m far from an automatic cheerleader of every Israeli team or athlete; on the contrary. But the people who criticize and laugh out loud are laughing mainly at themselves.