Waving flags and singing songs, hundreds of people turned up at Ben-Gurion International Airport late Monday to welcome Israel’s Olympic medal-winning judokas back home.
“I didn’t expect so much craziness,”Yarden Gerbi said upon landing, according to news site Ynet, which reported nearly 1,000 celebrants who came out to the airport outside Tel Aviv.
Gerbi and Or Sasson both took away bronze medals in judo in Rio, Israel eighth and ninth medals ever, instantly transforming the two into national heroes.
Entering the cavernous airport arrivals hall, Gerbi and Sasson were showered with flowers, as well-wishers waved flags, sang patriotic songs and held up pictures and posters with the two winners, stopping them every few moments for a selfy or a hug.
“I think I dropped to 57 kilos just from all the craziness here,” said Gerbi, who competed in the 63-kilogram category. “I had a few days of quiet in Rio as I took in the accomplishment. My next dream is some vacation.”
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On August 9, Gerbi defeated Japan’s Miku Tashiru in the runner’s up bout to clinch the bronze, the first Israeli medal since 2008.
Three days later, Sasson brushed off an unpleasant encounter with Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby in the over 100 kilogram category, winning two more matches and only narrowly losing to France’s legendary Teddy Riner. He then beat Cuba’s Alex Mendoza to claim the bronze.
Both were initially feted from afar, earning celebratory covers on the front pages of Israel’s popular tabloids and calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate them.
Men’s coach Oren Samadja, who won a bronze medal in the 1992 Games, making him the first Israeli to win a medal as an athlete and a coach, also arrived back from Rio and told waiting cameras that the two athletes should soak up the experience.
“I expect they will enjoy this, because they deserve it. They will need to get used to having been turned into well-known figures and role models. I went through this at 22 and it;s an amazing experience, it’s something that stays with you your whole life. They’ll stay grounded because that’s what they are, amazing people,” he said, according to the sports news website Sport5.
The two medals have been bright spots in an otherwise disappointing Olympics for the Israeli delegation, with several top-ranked athletes failing to reach medal rounds in competition.
As Gerbi and Sasson were arriving to a hero’s welcome, Shehaby, who refused to shake Sasson’s hand after a match, leading to international condemnation, was also making his way back to Egypt after having been reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee and Egyptian Olympic officials.
The IOC said the Egyptian’s conduct “was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic values.”
The Egyptian Olympic Committee also “strongly condemned” Shehaby’s actions “and has sent him home,” according to the IOC.