Tokyo 2020

From Ukraine to Israel to Tokyo: Journey of an Olympic gold medalist

Artem Dolgopyat moved to Israel at age 12 from Ukraine, and struggled to learn Hebrew and fit in — except at the gym

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

Artem Dolgopyat of Israel poses after winning the gold medal on the floor exercise during the artistic gymnastics men's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, August 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Artem Dolgopyat of Israel poses after winning the gold medal on the floor exercise during the artistic gymnastics men's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, August 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat, 24, made history on Sunday when he clinched a gold medal in the floor exercise in men’s artistic gymnastics.

The delayed Tokyo 2020 Games marked the Olympic debut for the modest, unassuming athlete — who has lived half his life in the Jewish state. But ever since he was a child, Dolgopyat has been notching wins and taking home medals as he worked his way up in the sport.

Born in Dnipro, Ukraine, Dolgopyat moved to Israel with his family when he was 12 years old. By that time he had already proved to be a promising young gymnast, after beginning training in Ukraine when he was just six.

“My father did gymnastics for a few years and wanted me to try it, because it’s a beautiful and difficult sport,” he told the Hebrew-language NRG site in 2017. “I was very skinny and full of energy, and I remember entering the hall and seeing lots of little kids jumping on the trampoline and doing flips in the air and I loved it.”

At age 12, he said, his father, Oleg, told him that the entire family was moving to Israel. “I knew we were Jewish, but we didn’t celebrate the holidays, and until that moment I hadn’t even heard of Israel,” he admitted.

When he arrived in Israel, he said, he struggled to learn Hebrew and to adjust to his new school and classmates.

Artem Dolgopyat of Israel performs in the floor exercise during the men’s artistic gymnastics finals at the European Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

“For the first two months I sat in class in Rishon Lezion and didn’t understand a word,” he told NRG. He switched to a school with a high percentage of Russian-speaking teachers, which helped him adjust. But he always felt most at home at the gym. “For me gymnastics was always the most important — it’s what I did all the time and what helped me acclimate to Israel.”

He enlisted in the IDF at 18 to perform his mandatory service, but served in a special framework designed for athletes, where he spent part of his time in the army and devoted the rest of his attention to training.

At the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics, Dolgopyat finished 5th in vault and 7th in floor exercise. And in 2017, he began to really blossom, notching a series of wins as he worked his way to the top.

In April 2017, Dolgopyat finished fourth in the floor exercise at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships — just one place behind bronze medalist Israeli Alex Shatilov — who became a mentor and friend of Dolgopyat in the years since.

Then a month later in May, Dolgopyat won a silver medal at the Grand Prix Osijek; in July he took home two gold medals and a bronze at the Maccabiah Games; and in October, he won the silver medal in the floor exercise as the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Montreal — only the second Israeli, after Shatilov, to ever win a medal at that event.

Oleg Dolgopyat, the father of Israeli Olympic gold medalist Artem Dolgopyat, is seen outside his work in Holon on August 1, 2021. (Flash90)

At the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Dolgopyat won a silver medal in the floor exercise, and at the 2020 European Championships in Mersin, Turkey, he took home the gold.

All his achievements came as a result of his immense hard work — hours and hours of training each day and late nights combining gymnastics with army service. He suffered injuries and setbacks, struggling with back pain and leg problems over the years. But he never gave up on his dream, and along the way, he always had Shatilov by his side.

“Gymnastics is like a family and Alex Shatilov is like a big brother to me,” Dologpyat said in 2017. “He’s helped me throughout the years, given me professional advice, helped me fix my mistakes.”

Shatilov — who represented Israel at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics — was also on hand in Tokyo, competing in the floor exercise but finishing 47th overall. Over the years, Shatilov, 34, won a series of medals for Israel at international competitions, but never managed to bring home an Olympic medal.

Artem Dolgopyat of Israel performs on the floor in the men’s apparatus finals at the Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

On Sunday, Shatilov watched and cheered as Dolgopyat made Israeli history and brought home Israel’s first ever Olympic medal in gymnastics and only its second gold overall. Shatilov congratulated Dolgopyat on the win, while the latter thanked him for all his support over the years.

“He’s accompanied me for my entire journey, for the length of my career he has been with me and we’re like brothers,” Dolgopyat said Sunday. “I’m so happy that he has always been beside me and I beside him. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t both make it to the finals.”

And while the modest Dolgopyat admitted that his gold-medal-winning performance wasn’t even his best, he has already set his sights on his next goal: another Olympic gold medal.

“My dream now is to get another Olympic gold,” he told Haaretz on Sunday. “That’s what we’ll start working on tomorrow.”

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