In general, Israeli sports enthusiasts and local sports media are more or less focused on one thing, football. The disparity between what Israeli football actually produces on the field and the amount of time people spend dealing with it, as well as the investors it attracts, became starkly clear last summer. Over the course of 16 days, a delegation of 90 athletes (Israel’s largest ever) showed what it means to be an elite athlete in Israel. No huge salaries, no psychological support from a team environment, no getting up for training in the middle of the day, or disproportionately large media coverage. Instead, it means someone who consciously chooses a very short career that ends with very little cash in their pocket, if any.
Among the Israelis at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were some who demonstrated they were the world’s best in their fields, who brought to a peak all their abilities - physicality, concentration, accuracy, strength, agility, coordination, and speed of thought - and at just the right time.
Artem Dolgopyat (for gymnastics floor exercises) and Linoy Ashram (for rhythmic gymnastics) won gold medals in a branch of sport that for years had been completely controlled by countries steeped in that tradition. A branch in which whose success was historically built on a judging hierarchy that could not be challenged by athletes from other countries, certainly not from Israel. But in under two weeks, Dolgopyat and Ashram tripled the tally of Israel's Olympic gold medals, which had not changed since 2004.
Avishag Semberg took an impressive and unexpected bronze medal in taekwondo, and Israel’s national judo team showed that even a house of cards that fell apart day after day, as individual medal attempts failed, could be put together again within a few hours to emerge with an inspiring group bronze medal at the mixed team event, erasing everything we thought about the mentality of Israeli athletes.
The question now is not what will happen to these athletes at the Paris 2024, Los Angeles 2028 or Brisbane 2032 games. They will continue to seek perfection and precision, to consciously ruin normal childhoods and social lives, despite the low budgets and the neglect by the sports establishment (that is, until they make a name for themselves, meaning having medal potential). The question is how to put the approximately 26,000 achievement-oriented Israeli athletes who have chosen to engage in individual Olympic disciplines on an equal footing with their 75,000 counterparts in well-funded but unsuccessful team sports.
The four medals from Tokyo are mainly food for thought for parents, and perhaps an opening for a change in the culture and practice of sports in Israel. These four medals have an impact far beyond the pleasant sense of national pride. They can have an immediate impact on social mores and leisure culture. As we have seen before, they are a gateway to cultural and infrastructural change. Instead of football, let your child take up judo or taekwondo. If your daughter doesn’t like basketball training, well, there’s an excellent professional trainer for artistic gymnastics or swimming right next door.
Israel has experienced the kind of boom that success in sports creates twice before: it happened with our successes in tennis in the 1980s, which led to the construction of tennis centers and hundreds of courts. Our successes in judo and gymnastics have attracted large numbers of children to these disciplines, creating a very wide base from which, together with good coaches, is producing world champions and Olympic medalists.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on December 30, 2021.
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