Sinai Says: With multiple medal contenders, Israeli Olympians primed for podium return

With the disappointment from London 2012, when Israel didn’t win a medal for the first time since Seoul 1988, the OCI has set a clear goal of returning home from Rio with at least one medal.

Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Olympic Committee of Israel Secretary General Gili Lustig
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
After four years of preparations, the biggest party in the world of sports will get under way when the 2016 Rio Olympics begin with an extravagant opening ceremony at the Maracana Stadium on Friday, marking the start to a festival unlike no other.
Among those marching with the Israel delegation will be the heads of the Olympic Committee of Israel, President Igal Carmi and Secretary General Gili Lustig, the man responsible for the day-to-day running of the organization.
With the disappointment from London 2012, when Israel didn’t win a medal for the first time since Seoul 1988, still fresh in their minds, the OCI has set a clear goal of returning home from Rio with at least one medal.
The two other main goals laid out by the OCI are to reach at least 10 finals and to have Israelis participate in events they had previously never contested. The last goal has already been achieved thanks to golfer Laetitia Beck, triathlete Ron Darmon and mountain biker Shlomi Haimy, who will all be competing in Rio over the next two weeks.
Israel will be sending 47 athletes in total to the 2016 Games, four more than the previous record set in Beijing eight years ago. Israel will also be represented in 17 different events, another record.
“I feel that we have lived up to our expectations and our preparations were as good as they could have possibly been,” Carmi told The Jerusalem Post.
“In competitive sport you ultimately face a test and the result is what counts. We want to come back from Rio knowing that every athlete reached his personal best and we will then be pleased.
Essentially all our preparations are focused on making sure the athletes come up with their best results at the right time. That is basically what we have been working on over the past four years.”
Carmi, who was named as president three years ago, explained that the OCI has been working with a methodical plan and that the athletes received more support than ever before. “This time we also took care of the mental aspect, which we hadn’t focused on beforehand,” he said.
“We implemented a significant program and that makes us feel good knowing that we have taken care of another issue. I’m certainly very pleased with our preparations and now we’ll see what comes of them.”
Lustig, who left his job as the director of Israel’s Elite Sport Department to become secretary general two years ago, is also pleased with the work that has been done since the London Games.
“The previous delegation was also excellent and we felt very good about it,” said Lustig. “But I think the difference this time is in several significant projects we initiated, including the mental project and the coaching project.
“Another important issue was the fact that the sailing, judo, gymnastics, athletics and swimming associations were all given an additional NIS 2.4 million by the Toto (Israel Sports Betting Board). That was a dramatic change and we can see that 75 percent of the delegation hails from those sports.”
Lustig praised the progress being made in Israeli sports, but understands better than anyone else that he will ultimately be judged on medals.
“It is so Israeli that everything is either black or white,” he noted.
“It frustrates us every time. You can see the progress being made in Israeli sport, starting with the fact that this is the country’s biggest-ever delegation to the Olympics. The OCI hasn’t made it any easier to reach the Olympics and yet the delegation has grown. We can also see the advancements being made in women’s sport. The most important thing is the process you undergo, but we are only judged on results and that is a frustrating fact."
“That’s why we keep stressing the importance of reaching finals,” he added. “We went from six in Beijing to eight in London and now we are targeting 10. It is true that we returned without a medal from London, but people forget about the finals. To be among the top eight in the world is not something which can be taken for granted. But if you come back without a medal no one remembers that.”
While Zika has been making most of the headlines over recent months, Lustig’s concerns lay elsewhere. “I think Zika is not so scary at the moment as it is winter in Brazil and in winter there aren’t any mosquitoes,” he explained. “I think the biggest problem in Rio is not Zika but safety. Everyone visiting Rio is talking about that and that is the subject that most concerns me. Our athletes have been given special guidelines, especially being Israelis.”
Lustig specified who he believes can win a medal for Israel.
“Our medal candidates should first and foremost come in judo,” he said.
“We have a very strong judo team.
Up until now we have only ever sent one female judoka to any single Olympics and this time we have four, with all four of a high level. The men’s team is also excellent.
All three guys took medals in target events and are all ranked in the top eight in the world, ensuring them relatively easier draws. This is the best and biggest judo team we have ever sent to the Olympics and you can see its great potential.”
Lustig also mentioned windsurfers Maayan Davidovich and Shahar Zubari, explaining that they “may not have registered significant results over the past year” but remain “surfers of the highest level.”
“We of course also have the rhythmic gymnastics national team,” he added. “You need to take into account that it is much harder to win a medal at the Olympics compared to European and World Championships as medals are only handed out in the all-around. But Israel’s team has been among the world’s best over recent years and is one of five-six sides that will be battling for the medals.”
Triple jumper Hanna Knyazyeva- Minenko was the last to be mentioned in name by Lustig, saying that if she is fit “the sky is the limit.”
“We are hoping to win at least one medal from all these candidates,” he explained. “Research has shown that you need five or six candidates to win one medal. We are also hoping for 10 finalists in Rio compared to eight in London, which would be a nice improvement. We have done everything we can and now all that is left to do is to see the results.”
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