If the Israeli delegation’s performance on the first day of the Rio Olympics was lackluster, Sunday’s performance was worse – especially that of the judo team, which had been considered one of the country’s best medal hopes.
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That Shira Rishony, competing in the 48-kilogram class, lost on Saturday to a more experienced opponent was predictable. But Sunday’s losses by two of Israel’s best judokas, who were both seeded in the top eight and therefore pitted against weaker opponents, were unpleasant surprises.
Golan Pollack (66 kg.) has been Israel’s star judoka of the past two years, winning a bronze medal at last year’s world championships. He was ranked sixth at the Olympics, and on Sunday he was matched with an unknown Zambian, Mathews Punza. But within 90 seconds, he had lost the match.
“Golan used a move he shouldn’t have used and doesn’t usually use,” coach Oren Smadja, a former Olympic medalist himself, said afterward. “The move doesn’t even have a name. It’s a move where you try to surprise your opponent by falling on your back on the mat, but it risks a lock, which is exactly what happened to Golan.”
“Golan lost to himself, and his opponent got a gift,” Smadja continued.
Pollack was stunned by his loss. He left the mat in tears, which were still running down his cheeks when he was interviewed afterward, and fell to his knees, hiding his face.
“I’m very disappointed, especially after all the long way I’ve come in the last four years,” he said, trying hard not to break out in tears again. “I came here prepared, and I still don’t really understand what I did out there. It was a mistake. I thank everyone for their support and I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you.”
After Pollack, it was Gili Cohen’s turn. Cohen, who was seeded eighth in the 52-kg. class, met Christianne Legentil of Mauritius, who got a bye in her first match because her Saudi opponent withdrew – apparently due to fear that she might win and then be forced to compete against an Israeli.
The match began well for Cohen, and she seemed headed for a win. But with less than a minute to go, Legentil pulled out a yuko (point for advantage) that gave her the victory.
“It’s very disappointing, and there’s no way to pretty it up,” Cohen said. “I’m very angry with myself and with the mistakes I made. I didn’t underestimate my opponent or think she came here to lose. But I was sure of myself, and felt that I could beat any opponent.”
“I’m very depressed, I prepared for this competition for a long time,” she added. “I hope the other women will have a better tournament.”
Shani Hershko, who coaches the women’s team, said her job now is to make sure the disappointment doesn’t affect Yarden Gerbi (63 kg.) and Linda Bolder (70 kg.), who are still in the tournament.
Cohen, she added, “should have won the bout and at least reached the quarterfinals,” but “a moment’s loss of concentration cost her the match.”
Over the next two days, two more Israeli medal hopes will take the mat. Sagi Muki (73 kg.), who was last year’s European champion, will compete on Monday, while Gerbi will compete on Tuesday.
Also Sunday, the International Olympic Committee reprimanded the head of the Lebanese delegation because Lebanese athletes refused to share a bus with the Israeli team ahead of the opening ceremony. The head of the Lebanese group physically blocked the Israelis from boarding a shuttle meant to take both delegations to the ceremony, and officials ended up organizing a separate bus for the Israelis.
At a hearing on Sunday, Lebanese delegation head Salim al-Haj Nakoula was warned the IOC would not accept a repeat of the incident.
AP contributed to this report.