Highs and lows of Israel’s Rio experience

Pair of judo medals inspire nation; bunch of podium near-misses; controversies and Munich memorials.

August 23, 2016 00:21
3 minute read.
ISRAELI JUDKOAS Yarden Gerbi (right) and Ori Sasson (left), posing with Culture and Sport Minister M

ISRAELI JUDKOAS Yarden Gerbi (right) and Ori Sasson (left), posing with Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, won the blue-and-white’s lone medals at the Rio Olympics which came to a close on Sunday night.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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After failing to win a single medal at London 2012, ending a run of five Olympics with a podium finish, the Israel delegation entered the Rio Games with one main goal.

Yarden Gerbi and Ori Sasson ensured the blue-and-white achieved it, winning two bronze medals in the judo events. It was the third time the blue-and-white delegation had won two medals in a Games, the first since Athens 2004.

Nevertheless, there was also some disappointment for the delegation, with Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig admitting he was frustrated Israel’s athletes, apart from Gerbi and Sasson, were only able to reach five finals in Rio, half the amount the OCI was aiming for.

“First and foremost we wanted to return with a medal, especially after what happened in London,” said Lustig.

“We also had a female athlete on the podium for the first time since 1992 and a superb performance by Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko, who ended the triple jump final in fifth place, the best-ever finish for an Israeli woman in athletics, bettering Esther Roth-Shachamarov’s achievement from Montreal 1976. The fact we had a record of 47 athletes in 17 different sports is also an achievement in itself. After the disappointment from four years ago, the people of Israel were expecting a medal and I think these Olympics can be branded as a success.”

Apart from Knyazyeva-Minenko, the four other Israelis to reach a final or its equivalent of a top eight finish in the judo events, were judokas Sagi Muki and Linda Bolder, windsurfer Ma’ayan Davidovich, who came tantalizingly close to winning a medal, and the rhythmic gymnastics national team.

Lustig detailed which Israeli athletes he felt should have done better in Rio.

“The one goal we didn’t meet was finals,” he said. “We expected to reach more finals and had some good candidates in Golan Pollack, Gili Cohen, Alex Shatilov, Sergey Richter, Yakov Toumarkin, Shahar Zubari and Ilana Kratysh. We expected more from them, but clearly I would have been happy to settle for our results in Rio prior to the Olympics.”

The Israel delegation also found itself caught up in some controversy in Rio, with the Lebanese delegation refusing to share a bus with the Israelis at the opening ceremony and Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby rejecting Ori Sasson’s outstretched hand following their first round bout.

“The incident at the opening ceremony was blown out of proportion and was over within five minutes,” said Lustig. “We are guided by certain values and if others want to act in a different manner that is their problem. We are proud to be Israelis.”

The Rio Olympics also saw the memory of the 11 Israeli victims of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre commemorated for the first time in an official ceremony organized by the International Olympic Committee.

The ceremony was held in the Place of Mourning, a memorial set up in the Olympic Village in Rio, two days prior to the opening ceremony.

The Place of Mourning was built to honor the memory of 15 people killed during Olympic Games.

Besides the 11 Israelis, it also commemorates the German policeman who was killed in the failed rescue attempt in Munich, two victims of the bomb attack at the 1996 Atlanta Games and Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in an accident at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

A long campaign led by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widows of two of the murdered Israeli athletes, demanded that the IOC commemorate the Israelis in an official ceremony, but their pleas had fallen on deaf ears until the appointment of German Thomas Bach as IOC President in September 2013.

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