Going for gold

Former MK Dov Lipman tweeted on Sunday, “Forget politics. Israel’s national baseball team is going to the Olympics!!!”

September 23, 2019 20:22
3 minute read.
Going for gold

DESPITE back-to-back losses to Italy and Spain at the European Baseball Championship in Germany, Israel still finished among the top five teams and will head to Italy for the WBSC Olympic Qualifier Europe-Africa tournament later this week. (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)

 It was a welcome break – from the post-election focus on which party leader would be able to put together the necessary coalition and be tasked by the president with establishing a new government.

As former MK Dov Lipman tweeted on Sunday, “Forget politics. Israel’s national baseball team is going to the Olympics!!!”

The team earned a spot at Tokyo 2020 after beating South Africa 11-1 to win the six-team Europe/Africa Olympic qualifying tournament in Parma, Italy. As Jerusalem Post correspondent Danny Grossman noted on Monday, this will be the first team sport that Israel will field in the Olympic Games since the national soccer team in 1976.

Israelis naturally felt a great deal of pride when news of the national baseball team’s achievement was announced, but there was also no little confusion. The game is almost unknown here. News presenters and interviewers suddenly found themselves in almost uncharted territory struggling to pronounce “pitcher” (instead of “peacher.”) As one journalist put it on KAN Radio’s Reshet Bet, Israelis will now learn to be comfortable with terms they previously did not know – just as they became familiar with Japanese judo terms when that sport took off in 1992 after Yael Arad and Oren Smadja won Israel’s first ever Olympic medals (a silver and a gold respectively) at Barcelona.

The Israeli baseball team is made up of Jewish-American college players who have adopted Israeli citizenship to represent the country in this sport, as well as some major league pros alongside a few Sabras (locals) who somehow got hooked on the game, many of them the offspring of American immigrants.

Grossman noted that veteran Israeli pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, a Tel Aviv native, has represented Israel in international baseball for more than 30 years and gave the “inspirational speech that fired up a disheartened team after the previous night’s loss to the Czechs.”

Israel Association of Baseball president and Team Israel general-manager Peter Kurz also expressed pride in the team’s incredible achievement.

The baseball team’s mascot is known as “The Mensch on the Bench.” It is a life-size doll which looks a bit like an Orthodox rabbi holding a Hannukah candle. The only time the team managed to get anything approaching such coverage locally was when a video went viral showing the players donning blue-and-white kippot as the national anthem “Hatikvah” was played, following their victory over Korea at the World Baseball Classic in March 2017.

The baseball team’s achievement is a good example, not only of the influence that immigrants can have on the country, but also of the strength of Jewish identity and ties between Israel and the Diaspora at a time when many have eulogized those ties.

The baseball team’s heady success was not the only good news for Israeli sports. This week, gymnastic superstar Linoy Ashram returned from the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, with six medals, including a gold. The 20-year-old Ashram, who combines representing Israel in her field abroad with serving her country as an IDF soldier at home, has now also earned a place in the Tokyo Olympics next summer. She is considered Israel’s top hope for an Olympic medal. Fellow gymnast Nicol Zelikman, 18, similarly won a ticket to Tokyo. Their success is particularly impressive as the judging in gymnastics, unlike in team sports or athletics, is based on a personal, subjective assessment of performance.

Judo was also back in the news in Israel this month with the decision by the International Judo Federation to suspend the Islamic Republic of Iran from future competitions, because Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei had been instructed by the authorities in his country to withdraw from a contest so that he would not have to potentially compete against Israel’s Sagi Muki.

Following Mollaei’s loss in his semi-final bout at the Judo World Championship in Tokyo last month, he moved to Germany, where there was talk that he had defected.

It is a tragedy for Mollaei, and for the ordinary citizens of the Iranian public, that the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime is so caught up with its animosity toward Israel that it insists this be extended to the world of sport.

This is a good time to remind Qatar, slated to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, that it is obliged to grant permission for Israeli football fans to enter the Gulf state to watch the matches.

Being good sports needs to go beyond politics.

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