The Shared Humanity of Or Sasson and Michael Phelps

At Rio, Israel’s whispering giant shuts up even the Israel haters, while the American legend celebrates the guy who beats him for a gold.

Judoka Or Sasson celebrating his bronze-medal win in Rio, August 12, 2016.
AP / Markus Schreiber

Suddenly they shouted “Your father’s on the phone” and he dropped everything, abandoned the press box, passed by the big shots and ran to the phone. His dad was calling from Jerusalem.

Then you saw “the Whispering Giant” soften; his voice broke and his eyes filled with tears. “I did it for my family,” he would later say.

Why “the Whispering Giant”? In the early '50s the Bristol Aeroplane Company came out with a revolutionary passenger plane named the Britannia. It had four huge turboprop engines (this was before the jet age) and could carry 90 passengers from New York to Tel Aviv in only 15 hours nonstop. A world record!

The Britannia was characterized by British elegance. Although it was a huge plane, its main claim to fame was its low noise, hence “the Whispering Giant.” And that’s a perfect description of Israeli judoka Or Sasson.

I’m not saying he speaks softly; he speaks loud and clear. He’s “the Whispering Giant” because he’s 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of pure muscle while showing infinite gentleness, patience and elegance.

I first met him at a convention of Israel's Olympic athletes at the Maccabiah Village in Ramat Gan, a few days before the trip to Rio. We were introduced and I saw immediately that this was a person with a gentle soul who had totally internalized the culture of judo: mutual respect, decency and no belligerence.

It was great talking to him at the time, and even better to embrace him now, right after his great victory over Cuban Alex Maxell Garcia Mendoza and his bronze medal. Yes, to embrace him, with all the post-combat smells. Better than perfume, believe me.

Nathan Adrian, Michael Phelps, Ryan Murphy and Cody Miller after winning the gold in the men's 4 x 100-meter medley, Rio, August 14, 2016.
AP / Michael Sohn

Sasson started on his path to the bronze Friday morning and concluded it in the evening at the medal ceremony. He defeated tough opponents in the first three matches and was beaten only by Frenchman Teddy Riner, the world’s greatest judoka, in the semifinals.

With the drumbeats that heralded the end of the battle for the bronze, the hall exploded with the joyous cries of the many Israelis who had come to see Sasson. Suddenly Israeli flags adorned the stands.

This time there was no booing. Even Israel-haters were silent. And Sasson enjoyed the moment to the fullest. He ran up to the fans, who pulled him toward the stands to hug him and have their picture taken with him.

Soon enough came the interview with journalists. But this gladiator was a humble one. He answered all the questions patiently, smiled happily, showed his medal and even hugged me until he got that phone call from his father.

Then he went up to the winners’ podium to receive the medal. And to tell the truth, when I saw the Israeli flag raised aloft my heart soared and my throat was dry from shouting.

Then he went through another grinder of questions in an official interview, sitting next to the French Olympic champion who hasn’t been defeated in six years. Riner complimented Or, who praised him in turn, and everyone was happy. It turns out it’s good to win.

After I had calmed down a bit I went to see the fencing competition (quite strange), and a women’s handball competition (quite impressive). But the truth is, I was only killing time until 10 P.M. to see Michael Phelps perform in the 100-meter butterfly.

It was a very strange contest. Phelps didn’t win the gold; a young Singaporean named Joseph Schooling took it and broke the Olympic record. Phelps “only” won the silver.

But he wasn’t the only one. Another two swimmers tied Phelps exactly, so at the medal ceremony the audience saw four swimmers on the podium, one receiving the gold and three receiving the silver. And that was that. No bronze.

Old-timers can’t recall such an event, whose probability is near zero. Then the four embarked on a victory march around the pool, with the hundreds of photographers recording it. Phelps hugged Schooling and pointed to him with infinite admiration.

In fact we saw a different Phelps at this Olympics more human, softer, someone who cries on the podium when he wins five gold medals and becomes the most decorated person in Olympic history, including those in ancient Greece.

There was a reason I’ve written about Phelps in the same context as Or Sasson. What they share is their humanity. And the audience senses that and envelops them with love.