Israel is hardly a sports powerhouse, yet for over 20 years its judo fighters have been a force to be reckoned with at the Summer Olympics.
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On Monday night, two Israeli judokas returned home from Rio, each triumphantly clutching a bronze medal: Yarden Gerbi in the women’s 63-kilogram division and Or Sasson in the men’s over-100 kg division. A third, Sagi Muki, lost to Georgia’s Lasha Shavdatuashvili in the battle for the bronze in the under-73 kg division.
By Israeli standards, this is an amazing achievement. Indeed, five of Israel’s total of nine Olympic medals so far have been for judo. The others were for sailing and canoeing.
So what is it about the Japanese martial art that brings out the sporting best in Israelis?
“Judo is both a mirror and a magnifying glass,” says Racheli Klein, who together with her husband Amir runs the Rak Judo chain of clubs. Its three branches — in Pardes Hannah, Ramot Menashe and Afula — have 160 members, from age 5 to the early 20s.
“We live at a very fast pace here in Israel — you don’t get many second chances. And like life in Israel, judo always makes demands of you, is always difficult. There’s never a dull moment. There are successes and failures along the road,” Klein says.
Right now, everyone’s talking about the successes.
“The medal haul from the Olympics was no fluke,” Israel Judo Association President Moshe Ponte told Haaretz on Sunday, in a telephone interview from Rio. “We’re all feeling the euphoria, but know that far more work lies ahead if we are to use this performance as leverage to bring Israel to the next level of world judo.”
The breakthrough moment came at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, when Yael Arad won Israel’s first medal in the country’s 10th Olympic appearance, narrowly losing the women’s under-61 kg final to Catherine Fleury of France. The next day, fellow Israeli judoka Oren Smadja surprised pundits by winning bronze in his competition.
Fresh-faced and pleasant of nature, Arad instantly became the sport’s local poster girl after dedicating her silver medal to the victims of the 1972 Munich massacre. Years after retiring from the sport, she now serves as television commentator on judo competitions and is a businesswoman.
After the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Israel went on to win at least one medal in each of the next four Summer Olympics, until the streak ended in 2012.
The next judoka after Arad and Smadja to bring home a medal was Ariel “Arik” Ze’evi, a gregarious bear of a man who won the bronze medal in the over-100 kg division in the 2004 Athens Summer Games and stayed in the limelight for a decade.
Now Israeli judo has two new national darlings — Gerbi, the queen of Netanya, and stubble-faced, 6-foot-3 Sasson, who wept at his victory after trying to shake his Egyptian opponent’s hand in the previous round.
But these elite performers are just the tip of the iceberg. The source of their accomplishment lies in Israeli parents’ desire to see their children do well in life.
About 60 judo clubs operate throughout the country. Some have flourished into production lines of champions while others focus on the martial art’s tenets.
“We’re a small, family-owned club,” says Klein, 35, a mother of two. “Amir and I met through judo, became a couple after the army and I realized my vision by opening the club in 2003.”
“Israel has many good coaches, and many good clubs. Most of those involved are quality people. The sport has its conventions, its rituals, traits that a child should acquire.”
The youngsters meet twice a week for training throughout the school year, with inter-club tournaments every few months.
“It’s a long process, like life itself,” says Klein. “Also, the kids are surrounded by values here. Even those who don’t continue had the chance to know themselves.”
Israel being Israel, the sport’s development has been marred over the years by some unsightly infighting between and within rival organizations, ego games and budgetary restraints, yet is still growing in stature. It cannot be denied that the achievement-based ethos is working.
“In 1992 I was Oren Smadja’s coach,” Ponte recounts. “He and others became the next generation of elite coaches in Israel. Like today’s leading judokas, they succeeded because they gave their all and were totally committed. Support from their families was also vital. Their main desire is to register more achievements, to bring more medals back to Israel.
“Judo is a sport with values,” Ponte reiterates. “Respect for your rival, respect for the organization and discipline, discipline, discipline.”
“Discipline is necessary but it’s not enough,” points out Prof. Boris Blumenstein, director of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the Wingate Institute’s Ribstein Center for Sports Medicine Sciences and Research. Blumenstein was a sports psychologist to four Israeli Olympic delegations between 1992 and 2008 and was previously a consultant to the Soviet national and Olympic teams.
“When I came to Israel in 1990 everybody told me that there’s no sport here. But if we can be good pilots, we can also produce good athletes,” he says.
Judo is particularly apt for the Israeli mentality, he says, while rejecting the simplistic “machismo” theories. “It’s a battle that you want to win — the stronger wins. But ultimately it’s about dealing with pressure and requires intelligence. The 100-meter sprint, for example, demands other skills.”
A major reason for Israeli judo’s continued success, Blumenstein says, is inertia.
“The 1992 Olympic Games opened the gates. In the years following I would ask people why they took up judo, and they would say ‘I want to be like Yael [Arad] or Oren [Smadja].’
“Mental preparation is particularly important in judo, as is drawing up a clear training program. One of the problems Israeli sportspeople face is finding suitable training partners, so our top athletes fly every December-January to countries like South Korea and Japan, where they meet top-level sparring partners. Another reason is the high level of Israeli coaches with experience of being in high-pressure competitive situations. If a young judoka hears them talking from experience, he takes them seriously. Israel has a serious reputation in the judo world.” Blumenstein says.
Dr. Iris Orbach, sports psychologist at the Ribstein Center, works with young judokas. “Mental training is an integral part of preparation,” she points out. “Israelis are used to struggles. You see it from the beginning. Mental skills have to be honed from a young age — this gives them a stronger base to build on. Like physical skills, mental skills should be adjusted according to age.
“I’m not saying that the approach isn’t professional in other fields, but in judo there’s already a tradition. You see a process, professionalism over the years that brings results.”
“It’s easy to lose,” adds Blumenstein. “Mental support is an integral part of the team, like a physiotherapist. Israelis have realized the importance of mental training.”
Blumenstein and Orbach are collaborating on a book about psychological preparation for competition.
“Ultimately, the key to success is the integration of the physiological, tactical and psychological aspects,” says Orbach.
“We teach youngsters to always aim high,” says Ponte. “Judo can be extremely demanding, and not everyone will reach the Olympics.”
Indeed, the attrition rate is high, as children in elementary school are easily drawn to more accessible games like soccer or basketball, and their elder peers to teenage follies.
“Altogether I estimate that 60,000 to 70,000 Israelis are currently active in judo,” says Ponte. “They range from 5 to 90 years old.
“The sport has tripled in scale in Israel in my time at the helm,” he claims. “This has much to do with our meticulous organization of events.”
Judo tournaments, held several times a year, usually in a school or municipal gymnasium,. do not look very Israeli. Officials in IJA blazers and ties referee as half a dozen bouts are held simultaneously on meticulously prepared mats, the young competitors bowing respectfully before and after every bout. Apart from some overzealous relatives (the Israeli equivalent of American soccer moms), decorum reigns.
While pointing out the importance of youth development, Ponte says that Israelis’ success in judo (compared to prolonged underachievement in other sports) has much to do with the national mentality.
“It’s a 24-hour-a-day endeavor. It’s also very much a family sport, with parents and siblings also playing their parts. The local judo fraternity feels like an extended family. In that sense, it’s very Israeli. The sport demands high values, and these are special people. It’s no coincidence that so many of them serve in elite Israel Defense Forces units,” Ponte says.
He speaks proudly of his association’s project in Israel’s Arab community.
“We’re sending coaches to schools and donating mats and other equipment. There are currently 300 to 400 Arab schoolchildren at judo classes,” he says.
The next challenge is clear to him.
“How do we leverage this success? I hope we’ll draw up a plan to attract more youngsters to the gyms. Not to rest on our laurels. After all, judo turns people into good people,” Ponte says.