Craig Lebrau
Craig Lebrau

The Gift of Hope for Israel from the Olympics

Israel celebrates its best Olympic performance ever, at the Summer Olympics held in Tokyo, Japan, in July  2021

As history records, Israel’s initial participation in the Olympics was in the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952. Hardly four years old as a nation at the time, Israel did not have financial resources to send a full athletic delegation to the Olympics in that year. Nevertheless, a generous donation from the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL- JNF) enabled Israel to send a fledgling team to Helsinki in its initial participation in the Olympics in the summer of 1952. At this event, Israel competed in athletics, diving, basketball, shooting and freestyle swimming, doing its valiant best, but winning no medals.

In fact, Israel did not win any medals until its tenth Olympic appearance in Barcelona in 1992. Yet, the nation doggedly participated in every Olympics held from the summer of 1952 up to the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. The only exception was the 1980 Moscow Games, where Israel boycotted the Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and because of Soviet opposition to Israel and Zionism.

Israel’s focus on the Olympics brings to mind, the words of the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Israel’s first Olympic medal was a silver medal for Judo, won by Yael Arad at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992. Arad’s win was followed the next day by a bronze medal won by another judoka, Oren Smadja. As it happened, during the five successive Summer Olympics from the 1992 event in Barcelona to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, U.K., Israel won a bronze medal, with the winning streak ending in 2012. Besides this, in 2004, Gal Fridman became Israel’s first gold medalist, in men’s windsurfing.

Nevertheless, it is the 2021 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, (which will go down in history as the Covid Games), that has proved to be Israel’s best Olympic games yet. Over the 17 days of the competition, Israel won two gold medals and two bronzes. The two gold medals, in particular, were the second and third gold medals won by Israel in its entire history of participation in the Olympics.

Actually, Israel’s Olympic participation in the delayed 2020 Olympics, was many years in the making. Participants were carefully selected, as well as the competitions. It culminated in a record-breaking team of 90 athletes to Tokyo this year, almost double the number of participants at the 2016 Rio Olympics, which was 47.

In the meantime, prior to the delayed 2020 Olympics in July 2021, the Olympic Medals Predictions website, which gathers and frequently updates data from world championships and other international competitions, to make educated guesses on the outcome of the games, predicted Israel would win five medals at the Olympics in 2021, while The Associated Press predicted seven medals. With Israel having won nine medals in its entire participation at the Summer Olympics, the Israeli team was energized to perform their best. 

Like a harbinger of success, the first day of the Olympics set the tone for the performance of the Israeli team, with 19-year-old Avishag Semberg, winning a surprise bronze in Taekwondo, for Israel. Avishag had previously secured first place in the 2021 European Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Bulgaria in May 2021.

Furthermore, when the gymnastic competitions began, two Israeli gymnasts grappled their way toward the coveted prize. Twenty-two-year-old Israeli rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram won a gold medal in the individual event, earning for Israel its third-ever gold medal, and the first won by a woman. Ashram was also the first non-Russian gymnast to win the gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics in two decades. Shedding tears of joy as she was announced victor, Ashram said, “I’m so happy that I did it – I came here and did my best.”

Six days before Ashram’s record-breaking gold medal win, Artem Dolgopyat won Israel’s first-ever gold medal in men’s artistic gymnastics by performing his floor routine and by demonstrating his polished tumbling skills.

Meanwhile, Israel’s rhythmic gymnastics team finished in sixth place, in the final all-around event at the Tokyo Olympics, while Israel’s national judo team won for their country, a bronze medal in the mixed team event.

Also participating with passion and commitment was, Itay Shanny, the first Israeli archer who defied all odds to end in ninth place overall, outshining opponents ranked significantly higher than him. While Israel’s first-ever equestrian team comprised four show jumpers, Olympic equestrian Ashlee Bond finished in 11th place overall, while Anat Lelior represented Israel at the surfing competition.

Israel has always maintained its focus on developing its human resources. As Jon Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based investor platform, once said “We don’t have huge natural resources, so we have worked hard to develop our skills-base in the country.” This focus on skills also extends to sports, in particular, to the Olympics, with lessons learned from some of the greatest coaches. While Israel can bask in the glory of its greatest ever success in the Olympics, Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president said at the ceremony, “In these difficult times we are all living through, you give the world the most precious of gifts: hope.”

From another perspective, the late Chris Brasher, British track and field athlete and sports journalist, once observed, “There is something in the Olympics, indefinable, springing from the soul, that must be preserved.”

Israel understands the phenomenon very well.

About the Author
Craig Lebrau is the Director of Cato Media. A former programmer, Craig is interested in Israel's startup ecosystem and aims to share his insights learnt from expanding to and managing business in Israel.
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