Junior fighter defies odds in Sweden

Israeli taekwondo star wins gold despite pre-tournament threats.

Taekwondo 88 (photo credit: )
Taekwondo 88
(photo credit: )
Kicking and punching, 16-year-old Gili Haimovitz proved just how proud he was to represent Israel. "It was the first time that there was Hatikva in Taekwondo overseas," said Haimovitz, who won first place in the 45 kilogram weight class at the European Junior taekwondo Championship in Trelleborg, Sweden, on Friday. "It was the first gold for Israel [in an international tournament]." Haimovitz, a tenth grader from Gedera, returned to Israel early Tuesday morning with trophy in hand and immediately celebrated with family and friends waiting at the airport. His win made a big statement for the Israeli team, which arrived at the tournament quietly after receiving violent threats. The Web site for the event did not include any mention of Israeli participation and the players weren't officially added to the roster until the day of the event. That did not stop Haimovitz from repeatedly asking to raise the volume of the Israeli national anthem and singing along during his victory ceremony. Haimovitz beat fighters from Cyprus, Spain, Germany, and Russia to win a five-round tournament against 21 other competitors in his weight class. He scored the tournament winning and tie-breaking point during an overtime round by stopping his Russian opponent mid spin with a kick to the stomach. Haimovitz and his coach Yechiam Sharabi said Hatikva was played at a lower volume than the national anthems of other winners at the tournament. The organizers of the event denied the difference in volume and said there was zero malice towards the Israel team. "There was nothing against Israel," said the secretary general of the European Taekwondo Union Gerit Eissink. "They took gold for the first time and everyone was happy." Additionally, Sharabi was unsettled when another Israeli fighter, Eylon Mason, was not rewarded with any points when he hit his opponent twice in the head. Sweden is a familiar site for Israel-related sports controversy. Israel played Sweden in a Davis Cup tennis tie in front of an empty stadium in March as the arena had been closed to the public after numerous security threats. The Taekwondo team already cancelled an appearance at a competition in Sweden in February due to violent threats. Many threats were also made in the months leading up to last week's tournament, but the team still took the chance and traveled with 12 fighters, two coaches, and one referee. The tournament included some 428 fighters aged between 14 and 17, representing 42 European countries and fighting in front of a crowd of about 1,000. In addition to Haimovitz's win, two other Israelis won fifth place in their weight class. Haimovitz, who has five years of Taekwondo experience under his black belt, is a national champ four years in a row in his weight class and won first place at the Croatia Open in 2008. He practices five days a week and is an elite member of the Israel National team. "I just want to win," said Haimovitz about his thoughts during the fight. "I don't think anyone is better than me, so I won't let them beat me." Haimovitz's family and friends surprised him at the airport with champagne and celebrations. His victory was especially inspiring for his two younger brothers who also practice Taekwondo.