Olympic spirit

The Olympic Games are an international sports competition, and if Israeli athletes did not win a medal this time, it is not a national disaster.

The Israeli delegation at the 2012 London Olympics 370 (R) (photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)
The Israeli delegation at the 2012 London Olympics 370 (R)
(photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)
A committee of experts will investigate why Israeli athletes did not win any medals at the London Olympics, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat announced on Wednesday.
It was a very Israeli thing to do. Every time Israel experiences what is deemed a national failure, on the battlefield or elsewhere, a panel is established to probe the shortcomings in an attempt to rectify them in the future.
More often than not, the issue is then put aside until the committee presents its findings, after which there is a brief brouhaha, and it is forgotten again.
Usually, there is a need to point fingers. In this case, calls have already been made in the media to dismiss the chairman of the Israel Olympic Committee, Zvi Varshaviak.
Let us not play the blame game but rather put things in perspective. The Olympic Games are an international sports competition, nothing more, and if Israeli athletes did not win a medal this time, it is not a national disaster.
Some of our competitors did exceptionally well, coming very close to medals, and they should be a source of national pride, not shame.
Windsurfer Lee Korzits, for example, was in second place until the final race in the women’s sailing competition, and ended up in sixth place due to a combination of bad luck and tricky winds – hardly an embarrassment.
She was too hard on herself. “I didn’t win a medal, and that’s a failure,” a tearful Korzits told reporters.
Similarly, gymnast Alex Shatilov fought back the tears despite his impressive performance to come in sixth in the floor exercise.
Many Israelis cried with former bronze medalist and judoka champ Arik Ze’evi, after he was knocked out in just 43 seconds – and he even received a phone call to cheer him up from President Shimon Peres.
“Arik, don’t let your spirits sag,” Peres consoled Ze’evi.
“We’re all proud of you. Don’t give up. Stay strong!” These words were an inspiration from our president, who is 89 this month. Despite a series of defeats during his long political career, Peres never gave up, and is today one of the most revered leaders in Israel’s history.
There is no doubt that much can be done to improve Israel’s sporting culture, and from an early age, children ought to be encouraged to participate in athletic activities.
Particular emphasis should be placed on the Israel Olympic Committee’s Elite Sport Department, headed by Gili Lustig, which trains gifted athletes.
We should also learn the lessons of success from other countries such as the US and China, which produce the world’s top athletes and win the most medals.
But we have only 8 million people, and in any case, medals aren’t everything. Israel has won seven medals since it began participating in the Olympic Games in 1952, with its only gold medal coming from Gal Fridman in the sailing competition in Athens 2004.
It has fared much better at the Paralympic Games, winning 113 gold medals since 1960, and in other sporting events, such as the Euroleague basketball competition.
Off the playing fields in London, Israel failed to persuade the IOC to hold a minute’s silence for the 11 Israeli sportsmen murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Games 40 years ago.
But the issue received extensive media attention, and memorial ceremonies were held in several locations, most notably at the Guildhall in London on Monday..
One of the highlights of the London Olympics was the dazzling display by Jewish American gymnast Aly Raisman.
The 18-year-old not only won the gold in the floor exercise to the tune of Hava Nagila, but made a point of mentioning the Munich 11.
“Having that floor music wasn’t intentional,” she said, according to the New York Post. “But the fact that it was on the 40th anniversary was special.... If there had been a moment’s silence, I would have supported it and respected it.”
Raisman personifies the true Olympic spirit – a combination of an outstanding athlete and a caring human being who realizes there is more to life – and sport – than winning medals.
The concept was nicely described by a former Jewish American gymnastics champion, Dan Millman, who wrote: “The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.”
It is the love of engaging in sport and the ethos of sportsmanship, rather than the race for medals and winning at all costs, that must be inculcated into Israeli culture. And that includes learning to win – and lose – with grace.