Judo is arguably Israel’s most successful Olympic sport.
Three of Israel’s seven Olympic medals have come in judo (just like windsurfing), with the likes of Yael Arad, Oren Smadja and Arik Ze’evi regarded as some of the country’s all-time greatest athletes.
In recent years, it has been Yarden Gerbi who has taken over the mantle, becoming the first Israeli to be crowned judo world champion in 2013 and winning a silver medal in the competition a year later.
However, for all the triumphs and honor brought to Israel by its judokas over the past three decades, history will be made by the current crop of the country’s best in Rio this summer, before the Games even begin.
Seven Israeli judokas officially secured their places in Rio on Tuesday when the new world rankings were released, three men and four women.
Israel has never sent more than five total representatives to the judo events at any Olympics, and no more than a single woman.
Shira Rishony (under-48 kilogram event), Gili Cohen (under-52kg), Yarden Gerbi (under-63kg) and Linda Bolder (under-70kg) will represent Israel in the women’s competitions in Brazil, with Golan Pollack (under- 66kg), Sagi Muki (under-73kg) and Ori Sasson (over- 100kg) to participate in the men’s events.
It is the result of a revolution in thinking at the Israel Judo Association which came on the backdrop of a disappointing showing at the London 2012 Olympics.
Five Israeli judokas participated in London, but none registered more than a single win, a far cry from the accomplishments of yesteryear.
The IJA decided to overhaul the way its athletes train.
Rather than each judoka practicing mainly with his personal coach, the IJA adopted a team-orientated format in which the athletes spend far more time training together under a joint head coach and his staff.
There were many doubters, but it is hard to argue with the results.
“We have been through four intense years of rebuilding - two of them while trying to qualify for the Olympics - that have been packed with success, disappointments, achievements, wins and losses,” wrote Israel national women’s team coach Shany Hershko. “The vision that was laid out after the London Olympics, a vision of working as a team with all the athletes part of one framework, has proven itself big time.”
Israel is one of just 10 countries with at least four representatives in the women’s judo competitions in Brazil.
“Israel’s team beat judo powerhouses with financial means, tradition and a far greater number of athletes,” added Hershko.
“From this moment onward, this is history and all our efforts will be dedicated to coming back from Rio with significant results. I believe in our athletes and in our system. We have 10 weeks until the start of the Olympics, 10 weeks in which we will make every effort so that our sportswomen will be as ready as possible to peak in Rio.”
Gerbi is one of the Israeli delegation’s best medal hopes, although she has experienced near misses in recent major events. She ended last year’s World Championships and this year’s European Championships in fifth place, losing in the bout for the bronze medal. She is nevertheless ranked at No. 4 in the world in her weight category, ensuring she will be seeded in Rio and receive a relatively easier draw.
Rishony, Cohen and Bolder all arrive at the Olympics with far lower expectations. Rishony qualified via a continental quota as her ranking at No. 20 was not good enough to book her an automatic spot.
Cohen is ranked at No. 10, while Bolder, who began representing Israel in 2015 after following her husband to the country, is at No. 9.
For each of the seven women’s weight categories, the first 14 athletes in the rankings qualified automatically, with a limit of one per country. For each of the seven men’s weight categories, the top 22 in the rankings qualified directly, with a maximum of one athlete per country.
Pollack (ranked No. 8), Muki (4) and Sasson (5) will all be seeded in Rio, with Pollack the only one of Israel’s seven judokas to have previously taken part in the Olympics.
Pollack, who won a bronze medal at the World Championships last year, lost in the first round in London.
Muki won the gold medal at the European Championships last year, while Sasson is a two-time silver medalist at the Europeans.
“All three of our men are ranked near the top and that is far from a given,” said Israel national men’s team coach Oren Smadja, an Olympic bronze medalist from Barcelona 1992.
“Throughout this amazing journey I felt the athletes and saw their huge progress. They went from being anonymous sportsmen to being admired and loved by sports fans in Israel and abroad. The qualifying period has ended and a new stage has begun. We are now in the final stretch ahead of Rio.”
Israeli judo has come a long way since December 2010 when Tel Aviv District Court judge Eitan Orenstein ordered to liquidate the IJA after years of mismanagement and internal wrangling.
Israeli judokas continued to compete all along, but suffered from the consequences of the crisis. That seems like a long time ago now, with matters both on and off the mattress looking as bright as ever ahead of Rio.
It remains to be seen what Israel’s judokas will achieve this summer, but it is safe to say that one of the country’s proudest sporting exports has never stood in better stead.