The Israeli delegation to Tokyo 2020 had many exciting moments. The national anthem was heard twice, and in two more instances, Israeli athletes were applauded as they stood on the podium. And yet, the moment when Linoy Ashram received her gold medal felt more exciting to the delegation – the trainers and heads of the gymnastics association, senior members of the Israeli Olympic Committee, members of the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, as well as journalists. Somehow, even the greatest cynics were at a loss for words when the Israeli flag rose up. Let’s be clear, this didn’t happen because of a sudden patriotic awakening. It happened because they were really, truly happy for Linoy Ashram. She deserved it so much.
All the athletes who reached achievements here – and those who didn’t as well – are worthy of esteem. But there’s something about Ashram that made everyone want it to happen for her. Even the days that passed in Tokyo, when her achievements could ostensibly lighten the burden on Israel’s leading hope for a medal, didn’t counter the tension that everyone felt here. A failure by Ashram, which was a distinct possibility, would have been truly heartbreaking.
Few athletes bore the burden that Ashram did for the past five years, except for Sagi Muki, who was marked for a medal from the moment the Rio Olympics ended in 2016. In 2019, this anonymous young woman began to win European and world championships at a dizzying pace. The most important was the bronze she won in the world all-round competition, and the gold she won on Saturday. From that moment, Ashram stopped being a hopeful, talented and hard-working girl from Rishon Letzion and evolved into a national treasure to be protected.
Life as a national treasure is hard. A cadre of protectors formed around her, but there was a limit to its capabilities. Israel is a high-pressure place, especially when it comes to sports, as past and present Olympiads will attest, who collapsed under the pressure. Ashram and the other athletes in Tokyo had the additional burden of two years of the coronavirus, which entailed having competitions cancelled and living in a bubble with her coach and the other Israeli competitor, Nicol Zelikman. “You could go crazy from this,” admits Zelikman’s coach, Ella Samofalov. “Just to see us all day long, without going home, training for 12 or 14 hours – there’s no harder sport in the world.”
The coronavirus also presented another high hurdle – postponement of the games for a year. Ashram and Muki were the only two athletes to bear this particular burden. Artistic gymnast Artem Dolgopyat did reach some high points already in 2017, but he managed to stay under the media radar. Kati Spychakov, Yoav Cohen, Anastasia Gorbenko and Avishag Semberg – who were marked as potential winners or actually ended up winning – they all broke into the public eye fairly close to the games.
Five years of pressure can crush an athlete. The time that passes intensifies the pressure and provides more opportunities for failure. That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of Ashram’s 2021 season, when her new ribbon exercise wasn't working out. She dropped the ribbon repeatedly, and she lost her natural place on the podium. That meant that after three straight years of places on the podium in the All-Around alongside the Averina twins, the momentum that brought her to Tokyo was propelling her to fourth place.
By the final days before the Olympics, the mental pressure had extracted a high price. “She suffered a lot from the tension, the nerves and the pressure,” her coach, Ayelet Zussman. “I saw how she grew thinner day by day, although she was eating well. For many months she had maintained a stable competitive weight and all of a sudden her weight dropped. She shared with me that she was worried about everyone’s expectations.” Zussman’s solution was simple: With Ashram’s consent, she took her phone away, to disconnect her from the pressure and the media in Israel, as much as possible.”
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Then came the competition itself, which brought another hardship. As if the ribbon weren’t enough, in the first exercise at the preliminary round Ashram dropped the hoop in an exercise she excelled at, in what was described as a “graceless mistake” of the kind Ashram has never made. That cost her precious points, so she started out in what was meant to have been an easy skip on the way to the real thing, in 15th place.
From this low point, Ashram faced the test of her life: she needed to overcome the previous failure, smile, and return to excellence. But how would she manage it? “At first I was angry at her,” Zussman admits. “Linoy was very scared of herself. I was tough because I know that that brings out the spark in her. Then I went to Ella and said – ‘I’m going out for a minute, talk to her a little.’” Zussman says she thinks this is what made the difference. After leaving Ashram alone with Samofalov for five minutes, “I saw Linoy with the sparkle in her eyes.” Samofalov, by the way, wouldn’t say what transpired in those five minutes. But the outcome was obvious, later that day and the next.
“That’s the measure of an athlete,” Ashram said after winning the medal. “A good athlete is one who as the ability after a fall or a mistake to come back. That is what every athlete needs to know.”
Ashram came out of the pit into which she had fallen, thanks to her coach’s excellent work, to her talent and her rare character, as well as the X factor that she put into the sport, that her competitors did not. The Averina sisters perform perfect rhythmic gymnastics perfectly, by the book. But this seemed to be the same sort of rhythmic gymnastics that won gold medals ten and twenty years ago.
Ashram brings something completely different. She jumps on the mat, skips to modern dance, almost hip-hip, throws the ball into the air and winks at the judges as if to say she knows exactly where it will land without looking. She puts on a show. “She has charm, she has style, and these are things you’re born with. Ah, and she has class,” says Samofalov, in a clear reference to recordings in which Ira Vigorchik, the coach of the Israeli Olympic team, is heard allegedly criticizing Ashram.
Ashram brings flair to a sport that has struggled so much to gain popularity and reinvent itself. She isn't just a national treasure, she's a treasure to the sport itself.
But not only did Ashram manage to dig herself out of the pit; she managed to do what she hadn’t done in any competition, not only come out ahead of one Averina sister, but both.
Ashram managed to attain an achievement so rare that it stirred a storm throughout the sport – she beat Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union in their own game. The Russians were so shocked at their fall that the Russian Olympic Committee quickly released a statement that Ashram’s win was an “injustice.” That, of course is a ridiculous statement, especially when it comes from an organization that doesn’t represent a country in the Olympics because it operated an unprecedented athletic doping ring. After all, Russian sports is the poster boy for injustice in sports.
So it's the other way around – there is no greater justice than Linoy Ashram taking home the gold. Greater than any of her competitors, more than any of the other Israeli athletes in the delegation. She climbed to the very top of a huge mountain of expectations to discover that she is even higher than the mountain itself.