Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Wednesday with Israel’s newly returned judo delegation to the Olympic Games in Rio, telling bronze medal winners Or Sasson and Yarden Gerbi that they are inspiration to the whole country.
Netanyahu also said he received messages from Egypt, insisting that not everyone supported Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby, who refused to shake hands with Sasson after his defeat by the Israeli in the preliminary round of the over-100kg competition.
The Egyptian judoka raised a storm in Rio when he also refused to bow after losing the match on Friday. He was ordered back to the mat to bow, which is demanded of judokas, and later reprimanded by an Olympic disciplinary commission.
Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Sports Minister Miri Regev met with the two medalists and the rest of the team — Sagi Muki, Golan Pollack, Shira Rishoni and Gili Cohen — at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
“Whoever reaches our Olympic team is a champion. First of all, one must remember this,” Netanyahu said. “It is not easy to be accepted into an elite unit. We saw the effort and the dedication, and the struggle, and this inspires us all; even if one does not succeed, there is the future. I tell you, it is possible to lose in a competition and come back, and I tell you this from personal experience. It is possible to lose and come back. You are all champions.”
The team returned to Israel earlier this week to a heroes’ welcome, with close to 1,000 people showing at Ben Gurion Airport to greet them, in particular Sasson and Gerbi.
“Now I want to tell you that yesterday I received a message from Egypt,” the prime minister told Sasson. “They told me that after your impressive victory and you extended your hand, which was in effect a gesture from the Israeli people because we know the truth and they told me from Egypt: I want you to know, Prime Minister, that other voices were heard.
“What is important is that for the first time in years other voices were heard from Egypt. I think that this is very important; this is an important milestone not only in sports, [but] in our network of relations, which is not just on the government level but other voices were heard also among the public. Your extended hand Ori was not without response, perhaps there [in Rio] but not everywhere. And this is a change, a great thing.”
Sasson, a two-time European silver medalist who turns 26 on Thursday, has brushed off the unpleasant encounter with Shehaby. He went on to win two more fights, claiming a place in the semifinals against France’s legendary Teddy Riner. After narrowly losing to Riner, he beat Cuba’s Alex Mendoza to claim the bronze.
AFP contributed to this report.