Arik Ze’evi: A model of success

Ze’evi trained in the local Judo club in his neighborhood, together with his older brother, Roni, who was the club’s first local gold medal winner in the Israeli Judo Championships.

Arik Ze’evi: (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arik Ze’evi:
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Iconic Israeli judoka Arik Ze’evi, 43, left the professional world of martial arts eight years ago. Working now as a lecturer and coach, we interviewed him at the Olympic training center in Tel Aviv to discuss some of the highlights of his career and his future plans.
He welcomes us to the center, where he trains the national Judo team, with a broad smile and a generous handshake. Ze’evi participated in four Olympics and retired after winning the European Championship for the fourth time in 2012 at the age of 36. 
“My last European Champion trophy is, without doubt, my greatest pride,” he says. “I was the oldest champion and nobody has beaten this record, which is still in place today.”
Born and raised in Bnei Brak, Ze’evi trained in the local Judo club in his neighborhood, together with his older brother, Roni, who was the club’s first local gold medal winner in the Israeli Judo Championships. Ze’evi, influenced by his brother’s accomplishment, began training intensively, and at the age of 15 won his first national competition in the adult class, becoming Israel’s youngest champion ever. 
Despite a lack of advanced training facilities, he steadily closed the gap to world class level, and began competing abroad. A 6th Dan black belt, he has had a successful career competing in half-heavyweight Judo competitions, bringing Israel pride by winning a bronze medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Ze’evi, who has an LLB degree from IDC Herzliya, is a popular trainer, sports broadcaster and motivational speaker. He is recognized wherever he goes as one of Israel’s sporting greats, and leaves no one indifferent.
He attributes his success to hard work and discipline. “In order to keep a high level, one has to make good decisions, make competitions that allow one to move forward, step by step,” he says. “But this is also the case during training. Sometimes it’s better to slow down the pace, and to adapt one’s training to one’s age and abilities to make better progress.” 
And that necessarily means making sacrifices, he says. “Every evening, I slept eight hours a night. I ate at the right hours and I was very careful with my body. I always remained very professional.”
Today, Ze’evi switches his Judo outfit very easily to a suit so that he can talk to business people about the benefits of well-being and strength.
“There are several similarities between sport and business from a mental point of view,” he says. “Whatever the task, we always face the same difficulties and when we fall, the feeling is the same. You feel destroyed from the inside and the slope is sometimes very hard to go back up.” 
With the hope that he could help others realize their dreams, he created the Israeli Foundation for Olympic Excellence (IFOE), an association that assists children with promise from an early age.
He notes that the Israel Olympic Committee supports athletes only from the age of Olympic qualification – 16 years for women and 18 for men. According to Ze’evi, IFOE bridges the gap between childhood and the age of Olympic qualification, encouraging and training those with “high potential” before they continue competing in the Israeli Olympic Committee.
IFOE offers several programs in different categories: Judo, swimming, athletics, tennis, gymnastics, beach volleyball and BMX biking. Since 2013, some 500 children have benefited from the help of IFO, according to Ze’evi.
Asked about his dreams for the future, he says, “I would like to become the coach for the Israeli Judo Olympic team. But in Israel, it’s pretty hard because we are employed for a term of four years and after this period, generally, our terms are not extended. Before doing that, I prefer to wait, enjoy my family (he is married and the father of three children) and later, why not?” 
After a career full of drama, Ze’evi has some regrets, especially during his famous Olympic competition in 2004, when he won “only” the bronze medal. “I would have liked to bring the gold medal to my country,” he says. “It’s maybe my biggest disappointment.” 
Perhaps I can remind him of the words of Pierre De Courbetin, the founder of the modern Olympics in 1896. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part,” De Courbetin said. “The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” 
Arik Ze’evi fought well – and continues to be an inspiration to others.