Standing face to face with Arik Ze’evi shortly after his Olympic dream came to a
bitter end at Beijing in 2008, it seemed quite clear that his career was all but
His battered face and red eyes told you all you needed to know
before he even opened his mouth to try and explain his early exit.
bronze medalist from the 2004 Athens Olympics looked slow and heavy even in the
one fight he won in China and admitted that the pressure had gotten to
He cried for almost an hour after his ultimate loss and claimed that
he doesn’t feel he’s “good enough” to continue his career, refusing to even
guarantee that he would be around to take part in the following year’s World
Four years on, and not only is Ze’evi still around at the
age of 35, but he will once more enter the Olympics as one of Israel’s better
Ze’evi was crowned as European champion for the fourth time
in his career on Saturday, beating Georgia’s Levan Zhorzholiani in the final of
the under-100kg competition in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Despite taking a
continental medal in three of the previous five years, Ze’evi had gone eight
years since he last won a gold at the Europeans.
Ze’evi, or any one else
for that matter, didn’t realistically believe he would ever do so
But despite suffering innumerable injuries, recovering from career
threatening shoulder surgery to qualify for Beijing, Ze’evi continued to fight
on, both on and off the mat and received his due reward this past
Where as once Ze’evi’s age seemed to be his biggest weakness, he
proved in Chelyabinsk that his experience can compensate for what he has lost in
speed and suppleness over the years.
Ze’evi would have been regarded as
one of the greatest sportsmen Israel has ever produced even had he retired after
Beijing, but he is currently adding another chapter, perhaps the finest of all,
to his remarkable career.
Not only is Ze’evi an Israeli legend, but he
will also be remembered as one of Europe’s most eminent judokas after taking his
ninth total medal in the continental championships on Saturday, also claiming
gold in 2001, 2003 and 2004, a silver in 2005 and bronze in 1999, 2007, 2008 and
“This isn’t the first time I’ve returned to Israel as European
champion, but the last time was eight years ago and the emotion is much greater
this time,” Ze’evi said upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport on
“In 2004 I knew I was the best and that I’d basically win as long
as I showed up and didn’t make mistakes. This time I knew I had a chance,
but it wasn’t really a realistic one, which makes this gold medal all the more
Ze’evi now turns his attention to the London Games, and
despite his recent triumph, he too knows that the magnitude of the task he faces
in the Olympics is of a completely different scale.
“I’m still in a
euphoric mood from all the love I’ve received,” Ze’evi said. “I assume I’ll
begin to feel the pressure in the coming weeks.
“I’m proud of my
achievement, but I know that it has little meaning as far as the Olympics are
As impressive as Ze’evi’s success in Chelyabinsk was (the
next oldest gold medalist was three years his junior), it is worth noting that
only one of the world’s top-eight ranked judokas in his weight category were
participating in the championships.
Five of the top eight, who will be
seeded in the Olympics, are from Asia, while only one of the three Europeans in
the list traveled to Russia.
The last time Ze’evi won the continental
gold he went on to scale the podium at the Olympics a few months later, but
eight years is a long time in any sport, not to mention judo, and should he
enter London unseeded he could come up against the very best far earlier than he
Clearly, success in London is far from guaranteed.
there will be plenty of time to scrutinize his prospects in his fourth
Now is the time to celebrate an extraordinary accomplishment by
a sportsman of the pedigree Israel is rarely firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Allon on Twitter: @AllonSinai
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