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 done.

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.

The 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 him.

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 Championships.

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 medal hopes.

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 again.

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 weekend.

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 2010.

“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 Monday.

“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 gratifying.”

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 concerned.”

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 would like.

Clearly, success in London is far from guaranteed.

But there will be plenty of time to scrutinize his prospects in his fourth Olympics.

Now is the time to celebrate an extraordinary accomplishment by a sportsman of the pedigree Israel is rarely bestowed.

allon@jpost.com Follow Allon on Twitter: @AllonSinai

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