Veteran Israeli judoka Ariel 'Arik' Zeevi 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Since 1992, judo has usually been the focus of the first week of the Olympics for the Israeli delegation.
The London Games will be no different.
Israel’s first two Olympic medals came courtesy of judokas Yael Arad and Oren Smadja 20 years ago in Barcelona, and with Arik Ze’evi also scaling the podium in Athens in 2004, three of the seven medals in Israel’s history have been in a sport completely foreign to the country not so long ago.
Israel’s judokas have also claimed countless medals in World and European Championships over the years and in the past two decades there has been little doubt that judo – together with windsurfing – presents the country with its best chance of medaling at the Olympics.
However, for all the national pride its breakthrough success created, judo in Israel was brought to its knees by mismanagement just last year and was in danger of falling into complete ruin.
After two decades of remarkable success, Israeli judo experienced a meltdown.
Years of internal wrangling in the Israel Judo Association led the Corporate Authority in the Ministry of Justice to appeal to court in a request to dismantle the failing federation in November 2010.
In September 2010, the Corporate Authority revoked the judo association’s proper corporate-governance approval, meaning it could no longer receive any government funding.
Two days later, chairman Edi Koaz announced that the association has ceased all professional activity, including the direct support it provides Israel’s top judokas.
Koaz, who had controlled local judo for the previous 14 years, was finally ousted and after a year of rebuilding under attorney Nimrod Tepper, Smadja’s former coach Moshe Ponti was elected as chairman.
Smadja, who began guiding the national team at the start of 2010, went several months without a salary due to the IJA’s liquidation, and even more critically, athletes were unable to travel abroad for major competitions, significantly hurting their chances of amassing the ranking points they required to achieve the Olympic Committee of Israel’s criteria of being placed among the world’s top 20.
With five judokas competing in London, two of them with a decent chance of claiming a medal, the crisis seems like a distant memory now.
However, while the status of Arik Ze’evi and Alice Schlesinger would have likely always ensured they would have made it to London one way or another, Soso Palelashvili was only handed a spot on the delegation after winning a bronze medal at April’s European Championships, while youngsters Tommy Arshanski and Golan Pollack needed a late appeal to be sent as two of the team’s three upand- coming athletes.
“I feel I have come a full circle after 20 years and that makes me very proud,” Smadja said last week.
“You must remember that apart from Ze’evi and Schlesinger no one gave any of our athletes any chance to be in London. But we were determined and managed to achieve our goals.”
The present judokas have a chance to emulate their predecessors over the next five days in London.
Equally important, the future of the sport in the country is once more looking bright, meaning judo should play a major role in Israel’s Olympic calendar for many Games to come.