When the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics kicks off next Friday night, 89 athletes will proudly march under the Israeli flag.
It’s the largest Israeli delegation to the Olympic Games in history, nearly double the previous high of 47 athletes at the 2016 Games in Rio. That jump is fueled largely by the 24 members of Israel’s first-ever Olympic baseball team. But the 2020 Games — held in 2021 after a year-long COVID delay, but not renamed — also mark Israel’s debut in surfing, archery and equestrian sports.
The most experienced member of the delegation is gymnast Alexander Shatilov, who will be representing Israel for the fourth time. Artistic gymnast Lihie Raz and swimmer Anastasia Gorbenko are both just 17 years old, although Gorbenko will celebrate her 18th birthday a day before the closing ceremony.
With no spectators and little freedom of movement for the competing athletes, these games will be an Olympics like no other as Tokyo battles a fresh outbreak of COVID-19. Many of Israel’s contenders have been waiting five years for their chance to prove their worth, and they are raring to go.
Israel has won just nine Olympic medals, and only one gold — in sailing at the 2004 Athens Games. Will 2021 be the year Israel scores another top prize at the world’s largest sporting event?
The Times of Israel checked in with Israeli sports experts on Israel’s best medal chances at the Games and which athletes to look out for with just days left until the Games begin.
Perhaps the best chance of hearing “Hatikvah” play in a stadium in Tokyo this summer is Linoy Ashram, a 22-year-old rhythmic gymnast who has consistently been picking up medals at international competitions over the past few months.
Ashram, one of two rhythmic gymnasts representing Israel at this year’s games, won two gold medals at the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Cup in Sofia, Bulgaria, in March, and took home a gold and two silvers at the European Championships in Rhythmic Gymnastics in Varna, Bulgaria, last month.
“She is the number one ranked around the world right now. She’s the best of the best,” said Joshua Halickman aka “The Sports Rabbi,” an Israeli sports blogger and writer. “She’s definitely a heavy medal favorite. As long as she can keep to her great form, she’ll be fine.”
Maya Ronen, a reporter for Israel’s Sports Channel who will be accompanying the delegation to Tokyo next week, said all eyes will be on Ashram.
“It’s clear that Linoy Ashram is perhaps the most prominent [Israeli] candidate for a medal,” said Ronen. “I really believe in her ability to rise to the top at the climactic moment,” she added. “I think at the Olympics, Linoy will give it her all, and her all will be worth a medal.”
Israel’s Olympic hopes often rest on its formidable judo lineup, and with good reason. Five of the country’s nine total Olympic medals have been won in the sport. This year, Israel is sending 12 competitors — six men and six women — to compete in the martial art, including some familiar names.
Sagi Muki, who competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics and finished in fifth place, won the gold medal at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo and the bronze at the World Masters in Doha, Qatar, earlier this year. Ori Sasson, who took home a bronze from Rio, is also returning to the Games this year and is considered one to watch in the men’s heavyweight category.
“We have a pretty good chance for medals and achievements in judo,” said Ronen. “Sagi Muki, the previous world champion, is the biggest standout… Sagi is one of those people who, on any given day, he’s an incredible fighter.”
Halickman agreed that Muki is one of the strongest contenders: “He’s going to be a threat.”
Judoka Peter Paltchik is another likely hope, who has “been excellent since the corona break,” said Halickman. Ronen also put him at the top of her list: “He’s in incredible shape, he took the 2020 European Judo Championships — he can get the medal.”
But Halickman noted that the judo competitions can be unpredictable. “What’s interesting in a sport like judo is you can be eliminated within 10 seconds and that can be the end of your tournament… so it’s dangerous to get your hopes up,” he said.
“On a good day, Israel could rake in three medals in judo,” Halickman summed up. “On a bad day, they could walk away with nothing.”
Israel is sending 15 swimmers to the Games in Tokyo. Two are a synchronized swimming duo and the other 13 are competitive racers.
The strongest swimming medal hopes appear to be resting on 17-year-old Gorbenko, who won gold at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in the 200m medley, and another gold a year later at the Barcelona Open in the same event. She’ll also be competing in the 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m breaststroke.
“She is arriving in incredible shape,” said Ronen. “She could notch some incredible achievements,” she added, even if that is simply qualifying for the swimming finals, where only the top eight compete. “For me, the final is as exciting as a medal.”
Israel’s other top swimming medal contender is 29-year-old Yakov Toumarkin, who represented Israel at two previous Olympics — Rio in 2016 and London in 2012.
And while Israel has a long history of Olympic swimmers, Matan Roditi will become the first Israeli to compete in the 10 km open water marathon, which first appeared at the Games in 2008.
Baseball is returning to the Summer Olympics this year for the first time since 2008, and with it comes Israel’s first-ever Olympic baseball team, which has made a Cinderella-like journey to the Games.
Made up largely of naturalized American Jews — and several former Major League Baseball players — the team has garnered a good deal of international media attention and been likened to Jamaica’s unlikely 1988 Olympic bobsled team.
Just six countries have qualified to compete in baseball at the Olympics, giving Israel — in theory — 50/50 odds at taking home a medal.
“I think the baseball team has shown a lot of resilience through their qualifying rounds,” said Halickman. “The fact that they were able to qualify for the Olympic tournament is no short of a modern-day miracle.”
Over a series of games, Israel will battle Japan, South Korea, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the United States for a shot at a medal. “Israel has some former major league players and some minor league players. There are some good, solid players on this team,” Halickman said. “You have to remember, the US isn’t sending their best baseball players,” since those athletes are playing in the MLB this summer.
Ronen admitted that, like most Israelis, she’s not particularly familiar with the sport, which has little local representation. But she thinks the team’s Olympic run could change that.
“Nobody here can say they grew up on baseball,” she said. “But I think that there’s an incredible opportunity for exposure… if there’s a major success for the team, imagine what that will do for baseball in Israel. It could bring a revolution.”
Making a debut
In addition to baseball, Israel is making its Olympic debut this year in archery, surfing and equestrian sports.
In archery, Itay Shanny, 22, qualified as the first Israeli to compete in the sport at the Olympics. Shanny told The Times of Israel after his qualification last month that it was a dream come true. “This is something I’ve worked on for years and reaching this point is unreal,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. I managed to shake off the nerves and was focused and precise, like in another world.”
Anat Lelior, 19, will be Israel’s first and sole surfer at this year’s Games. Her qualification for the games, her dad told JTA, was the pinnacle of years of challenging and often lonely work. “In a way, making the Olympics says yes, your work, your achievement, is visible. Yes, you are a woman. You are a surfer. You are an Israeli. You are Jewish. You’re a lot of things,” said Yochai Lelior. “But the Olympics, it’s confirmation.”
Israel’s four-person and four-horse team, whose humans consist exclusively of naturalized Israelis, will take on show jumping at the Olympics this year. US-born riders Ashlee Bond and Teddy Vlock and Mexico native Alberto Michan will compete alongside New York native Dani G. Waldman, the team’s traveling alternate, who has been fighting to get Israel a place on the international equestrian scene since she became an Israeli citizen in 2010.
“Since I got my Israeli citizenship more than 10 years ago, this has been my whole goal: to build this team for Israel,” Waldman told The Times of Israel several weeks ago. “I’m thrilled that Israel will have representation in equestrian sports in the Olympics when they never have before. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Among Israel’s 89 athletes this year are no small number of inspiring stories — as well as some family connections.
Husband and wife runners Marhu Teferi, 28, and Selamawit Teferi, 27, will be competing together — though not against each other — in Tokyo. Marhu will take part in the men’s marathon, while Selamawit is slated to race in both the women’s 5,000m and 10,000m races. The pair, who were both born in Ethiopia, met in 2012 at a training camp and got married in 2017. They are the first husband-and-wife team to represent Israel at the Olympics.
Brothers Ran and Shachar Sagiv are the only competitors representing Israel in the triathlon this year — and the second and third in history. Shachar, 26, and Ran, 24, are natives of Zichron Yaakov, and the sons of Shemi Sagiv (at the time known as Sabag), who represented Israel as a marathon runner at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
“We’re always encouraging each other — and also fighting — like all brothers,” Shachar told Ynet. Ran added: “The stronger our connection is, the stronger we are. It will also be the first time that a father who was at the Olympics will accompany his two sons. It’s a dream come true.”
Ronen suggested that Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, a woman’s marathon runner, is a potential medal contender who has been flying somewhat under the radar.
“She’s an incredible athlete,” she said, “but she hasn’t received that much focus lately.”
Halickman echoed that sentiment. “She has been very good; her times have been excellent,” he said. “She’s competed very, very consistently. I think she’s a dark horse to win a medal.”
Salpeter, a native of Kenya, moved to Israel as a nanny for a Kenyan diplomat, where she met her now-husband, fell in love and got married. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Salpeter could not complete the marathon after experiencing pain due in part to complications from nursing her son. But five years later, Salpeter is back in roaring form — she took home gold at the Tokyo marathon last year — and ready to race to the finish.
Ronen also pointed to artistic gymnast Artem Dolgopyat — who won a gold medal at the 2020 European Championships — as one to watch out for.
“It’s hard for me to call him a dark horse. He won a series of medals in international competitions and he’s incredible,” she said. “But I think he’s received less media focus than Linoy Ashram and others. He’s an incredible athlete.”
The site Olympic Medals Predictions, which gathers data from world championships and other international competitions in an attempt to guess the outcome of the games, suggests Israel will take home five medals this year: a gold for Muki in judo, a silver in gymnastics for Dolgopyat and for windsurfer Katy Spychakov, and bronzes for Ashram in gymnastics and Tohar Butbul in judo.
But Ronen — and the rest of the team covering the Olympics for the Sports Channel — will have their eyes on every sport, even as their movements are limited by the COVID restrictions.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” she said. “These athletes really show the power of the human body.”
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