Team Israel – My Other Olympic Lover

I am not normally a sports fan, but there’s something about seeing Israeli Olympians that makes my Jewish-American heart skip a beat.

“The Olympics are coming,” my television set screamed at me. Everywhere I looked, I saw advertisements for sporting drinks, articles commenting on athletes, and friends from London updating their Facebook status with pictures of London 2012 ticket stubs. Without delay, I began looking up profiles of all the Israeli athletes that were competing.

I am not normally a sports fan. While attending an institution in the American South known throughout the United States as a football powerhouse, I was woefully uninformed. People would ask me if I knew any football players, or if I could get tickets to games for them. I would respond to them with a blank, unattached stare and ask, “There’s a football game this weekend?” Needless to say, when I tell people that I never went to a football game during my tenure at said university, I get a similar version of said stare in response. It was a cardinal sin to miss football games; by completely ignoring the phenomenon of football at my school, I was selling my soul to the devil.

The Olympics, though, are different. My normally unimpressed stare at sporting events suddenly turns into a wide-eyed wonder. In a matter of days, I become a gymnastics fanatic, pretending my three years in elementary school gymnastics made me an expert on quarter-point deductions and how difficult a twist or turn is. I gnaw my teeth as I watch swimmers touch the wall within a split second of each other. I avert my eyes as the divers plunge into the pool, hoping there won’t be a belly flop by accident.

But, the moment that I get the most nervous, the most excited, and by far the loudest is when I see an Israeli athlete in an event. Don’t get me wrong, I still root for Team USA (and was exuberant when the American gymnastics team won the gold), but there is something about Team Israel that makes the heart flutter: with a country so small, everyone actually feels as though it’s their friend or cousin who just competed in the games.

Israelis often joke that everyone knows each other. I often feel this way when I watch someone from Israel compete. I begin to think, “Where is he from?” “Do I know someone who knows him?” Sure, I had a coworker once who went to high school with Michael Phelps, but with Israel it just feels that much more intimate. There might be a chance that I actually know someone through someone who is competing in the Games.

Perhaps it’s the excitement of having won medals in the past, or perhaps it’s simply that in this world arena, Israel feels incredibly like the underdog. Israel has only won one gold medal in its history in the Olympics and has won a scattered few since its first in 1992; every time someone wins a medal, it’s a cause for national celebration.

There’s also a feeling of collective nervousness. Israelis track every medal count like it’s their last. Friends of mine have the Google medal count on their homepage and update it religiously. Netanyahu and Peres post numerous status updates on Facebook with their hopes for the Olympic athletes. When Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, or “Andyoni” as Israelis affectionately call them, beat Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, the Hebrew Internet couldn’t stop gushing.

While every country roots for its Olympians, it’s different when there are only a few that represent your country. I’m ecstatic when the U.S. wins a medal, but with its high medal count, it’s not as big of an event. When an Israeli wins a medal, I feel proud of being Jewish and Israeli, and I feel like something big has just happened. The medal then goes into the “history books” of Jewish and Israeli sports.

So, while you won’t see me plastered to videos of sports updates throughout the year, I’ll be checking my Haaretz medal count to see if Israel’s won a new medal; I’ll be rooting for you, Team Israel, and checking my Facebook to see if I have any “mutual friends” in common with any of the Olympians.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.