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Tokyo 2020

As Olympics come to an end, Israel celebrates its best Games ever

With just six months until the 2022 Winter Games and three years until Summer Games return in Paris, the Jewish state is ready to keep its eyes on the prize

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Israeli gold medalist Linoy Ashram (C) carries the national flag during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on August 8, 2021. (Adek BERRY / AFP)
Israeli gold medalist Linoy Ashram (C) carries the national flag during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on August 8, 2021. (Adek BERRY / AFP)

The delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics came to an end on Sunday, with a closing ceremony that marked the finish of what will forever be remembered as the COVID Games.

Israel marked historic wins and achievements over the 17 days of competition, with its best-ever Olympic showing. Arriving at the games with just seven medals in its history, the Jewish state took home four more including two gold — its second and third ever.

Unprecedented challenges

IOC chief Thomas Bach said at the Games’ closing that it had been the “most challenging Olympic journey” after a year’s pandemic delay and threats of cancellation.

Bach called the Tokyo Games “unprecedented” as he addressed the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which was empty of spectators as Japan battles a record coronavirus outbreak.

“In these difficult times we are all living through, you give the world the most precious of gifts: hope,” the International Olympic Committee president told athletes at the ceremony.

It marked a low-key end to an extraordinary Olympics that have mostly played out in empty venues with only athletes, team officials and media present.

Artem Dolgopyat of Israel celebrates after winning the gold medal on the floor exercise in the artistic gymnastics men’s final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Athletes have lived in strict biosecure conditions with social distancing at the Olympic Village and instructions to wear masks unless eating, sleeping, training or competing.

As the Olympic flag was passed to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo for the 2024 Games, live footage showed cheering crowds in the French capital — in stark contrast to Tokyo.

Bach has described how the IOC considered canceling the Olympics and claiming the costs on its insurance policy but said officials plowed ahead with holding the Games “for the athletes.”

Unprecedented wins

On the first day of the competition, Israel’s Avishag Semberg took home a surprise bronze in Taekwondo, setting the tone for Israeli achievements. And while Israel’s heavily favored judokas were felled one by one in their individual matches, they rallied together in the mixed team event — making its Olympic debut this year — to put a bronze medal around each of their necks.

Israel’s Avishag Semberg celebrates with her bronze medal on the podium after winning a bronze medal in taekwondo at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

And when the gymnastics competitions kicked off, two Israelis fought their way to the top to hear “Hatikvah” echo in the stadium in Tokyo: Artem Dolgopyat, who won gold in the men’s artistic gymnastics floor routine, and Linoy Ashram, who took the top spot in the women’s rhythmic gymnastics all-around competition.

Until this year, Israel had never won more than two medals at any individual Olympics. It sent a record-breaking 90 athletes to Tokyo this year, almost double 2016’s high of 47 participants in Rio.

Even off the podium, Israel set a number of records and notched numerous accomplishments. Matan Roditi, Israel’s first-ever Olympic open-water swimmer, came in fourth in the 10km race, exceeding his own expectations and marking a new high for Israeli swimmers. Marhu Teferi came in 13th in the men’s marathon early Sunday morning, setting an Israeli record for an Olympic marathon finish. Anastasia Gorbenko became the first Israeli female swimmer to qualify for an Olympic final, and cyclist Omer Shapira was up ahead during the women’s cycling road race until she was caught by the pack in the final minutes.

There were some disappointments for Team Israel as well: runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who won the Tokyo 2020 Marathon and was a favorite to medal on Saturday, had to pause the race due to stomach pains and ultimately finished 66th, after leading the pack for much of the way. And while Israel’s equestrian team made its Olympic debut this year, competitors in both the individual and team show jumping fell off their horses and were eliminated. Windsurfing medal favorite Katy Spychakov ultimately finished in sixth place overall.

From left, silver medalist Dina Averina, of Russian Olympic Committee, gold medalist Linoy Ashram, of Israel, and bronze medalist Alina Harnasko, of Belarus, stand on the podium after the rhythmic gymnastics individual all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on Saturday, August 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP/Ashley Landis)

Alongside equestrian contests, Israel also made its Olympic debut in Tokyo in archery, baseball and surfing. Archer Itay Shanny defied all the odds to finish ninth overall, after beating out opponents who were ranked significantly higher than him. Israel’s much-hyped baseball team finished its Cinderella-like run in fifth out of six teams overall, putting up a fight against stiff competition.

Drama on the sidelines

As always, politics played a role at the Games on numerous fronts, including some involving Israel. Two judokas — Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool and Algeria’s Fethi Nourine — pulled out of their competitions in order to avoid facing Israeli Tohar Butbul.

But there were also some glimmers of hope. Despite a wealth of speculation, Saudi judoka Tahani Alqahtani showed up to her battle against Israeli Raz Hershko, and the pair shook hands after their match, which Hershko won. And Iranian basketball coach Mehran Shahintab shook hands with the coach of the Czech Republic team during their game, despite Ronen Ginzburg being Israeli.

Tahani Al-Qahtani of Saudi Arabia, left, and Raz Hershko of Israel shake hands after competing in their women’s +78kg elimination round judo match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

The games marked another first: An official commemoration during the opening ceremony for the 11 Israelis murdered in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Families of the Munich victims had campaigned for years for greater public recognition for the dead from the International Olympic Committee, and widows Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, who led the charge, were on hand during the ceremony in Tokyo.

Other highlights

While the Tokyo Games will undoubtedly be remembered as being held largely without any spectators amid the global coronavirus crisis, many other aspects made headlines around the world.

One of the biggest stories of the competition was Simone Biles, who shocked the world when she announced that she was pulling out of most of her events in order to focus on her mental health. She returned for just one event — the balance beam — and took home a bronze medal, which she said meant more than all her golds.

Host country Japan had its best Olympic showing in every category: its most gold medals (27), its most overall (58), and a third-place finish in gold medals behind two much larger countries — the United States and China. Overall, the US took home the most Olympic medals (113), followed by China (88) and the Russian Olympic Committee (71).

Simone Biles, of the United States, performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The IOC’s Bach said two days before the close that the Tokyo Games “far exceeded my personal expectations,” because when spectators were barred as a pandemic precaution he feared “these Olympic Games could become an Olympic Games without soul.”

Instead, Bach said, he found the intimacy in the empty venues made for an intense atmosphere. “In many cases you did not realize that there were no spectators,” he said. “Maybe in some cases you could even experience the feelings of the athletes closer and better than being surrounded by so many spectators.”

Off the field, one of the most prominent stories was Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was almost forced on a plane back to Belarus after publicly criticizing her coaches. Tsimanouskaya managed to enlist Japanese police to prevent her from being forced onto the plane, and ultimately succeeded in seeking asylum in Poland.

Winter is coming

Politics will undoubtedly play a role in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, China, which are set to kick off in just six months, and will likely also face a wave of COVID challenges.

Members of Israel’s team pose with their bronze medals after the medal ceremony in team judo competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on July 31, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Beijing is Japan’s rival in East Asia and home to an authoritarian government that is expected to administer its Games in a more draconian and restrictive way, virus or no virus.

Israel, not exactly known for its chilly temperatures, has never won a medal at any Winter Olympic Games, but it has sent a delegation to every competition since 1994. This year will be no exception, although the size and makeup of the delegation has yet to be determined.

And even if “Hatikvah” won’t ring out in Beijing in February, many of Israel’s athletes have already set their sights on the games that are now just three years away: Paris 2024.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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