Ahead of Rio, largest-ever Israeli team hopes for Olympics rebound
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Ahead of Rio, largest-ever Israeli team hopes for Olympics rebound

Veterans and first-time competitors feel good about their chances despite a disappointing showing in London in 2012, and hope to inspire next generation of athletes

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Israel's rhythmic gymnastics team, a favorite to medal in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, outside of Tel Aviv, July 12, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israel's rhythmic gymnastics team, a favorite to medal in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, outside of Tel Aviv, July 12, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Hoping to rebound from a lackluster showing in 2012, Israel will field its largest-ever Olympic delegation at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when the games kick off next month. The 48 qualifiers will compete in 16 sports, including Israel’s first Olympic entries in golf, triathlon and mountain biking.

Four years ago in London, Israel’s 37 competitors failed to bring home any medals. Windsurfer Shahar Zubari won Israel’s last medal when he took a bronze in Beijing in 2008.

Zubari is considered to have a good chance of placing in Rio, along with judoka Yarden Gerbi, wrestler Ilana Kratysh, and the rhythmic gymnastics team, which won the European championship in June.

The country has won seven medals in 16 appearances at the games. Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel’s only gold medal ever in Athens in 2004.

Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari (photo credit: Marko/Flash90/File)
Israeli windsurfer Shahar Zubari (photo credit: Marko/Flash90/File)

“I feel good. I’ve been waiting all my life for this,” Kratysh said at a press event in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv, on Tuesday. Kratysh became the first Israeli woman to qualify to wrestle in the Olympics when she won the World Qualification Tournament in Mongolia in April.

Kratysh lives in Haifa but has been training in Ukraine. The 26-year-old is a four-time silver medalist in the European championships and will compete at 69 kilograms.

“It’s exciting to be the first female in wrestling,” Kratysh said. “I want people to know the sport more in Israel and give hope to the next generation.”

She says she feels it is especially important for her to inspire younger female athletes since she is alone in her field competing for Israel.

“I know I’m already being a role model for lots of young girls. I want to continue to be an example,” she said.

Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai also hopes to do the same and says the team is confident despite the poor showing in London.

“I want to show them that us ladies can do something,” she said.

The 27-year-old has been training for the games for five years, said her husband and coach Dan Salpeter.

Chemtai had an uphill battle joining the Olympic team after the Interior Ministry rejected her status as an Israeli athlete. She first came to Israel eight years ago to work for a Kenyan diplomat and met Salpeter through running. The two later married in Kenya, and now have a one-year-old son named Roy.

Marathoner Lonah Chemtai will compete for Israel at the 2016 Olympics. July 12, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Marathoner Lonah Chemtai will compete for Israel at the 2016 Olympics. July 12, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Her status was rejected for years, but she was approved to compete in the upcoming games at the last minute after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri personally stepped in.

The resistance from Israel’s bureaucracy has not dampened her enthusiasm, though.

“I’m ready for it. It’s my first Olympics, and I’m proud to represent Israel,” she said.

She won the Tel Aviv marathon with a time of two hours, 40 minutes and 16 seconds, almost five minutes under the qualifying time for the games. No other Israeli woman was able to qualify.

Donald Sanford is also looking forward to representing his adopted country at the games. The Los Angeles native moved to Israel after meeting his wife, Israeli basketball player Danielle Dekel, while the two studied at Central Arizona College. They married in 2008 and now live in Kibbutz Ein Shemer.

Olympic Hope – Donald Sanford is running for the medal

He's fast, focused and very proud to be representing Israel this summer at the Olympics in Rio! Meet sprinter Donald Sanford, and SHARE to wish him good luck!

Posted by Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs on ceturtdiena, 2016. gada 30. jūnijs

He has only competed for Israel internationally, but sees the differences in sports culture at the youth level.

“In America it’s 100% sports from the start. In middle school and high school it’s part of the curriculum to graduate. In Israel it’s not as essential,” he said. “I try to be an example as much as I can. It’s good for the kids to see it, also in judo, gymnastics, other sports.”

The 29-year-old specializes in the 400-meter dash and competed for Israel in the 2012 Olympics. He has been training hard since, he said.

“Its exciting. We trained for four years for this, hopefully it will go well,” he said.

The games kick off August 5th and end August 21st.

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