For medal-less Israel, failure is relative
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2012 Olympics

For medal-less Israel, failure is relative

To hear the sports minister, London was a flop. To watch the athletes — their prowess, their commitment, their grace in defeat, and some of their achievements — it was anything but

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Israel’s medal-less delegation to London 2012 had failed, Sports Minister Limor Livnat declared late last week, as the team members trickled back to Israel. Her comments caused an uproar among the athletes. Some of them were still competing and felt that nobody was interested in them. Others argued that breaking a national record or making the world’s top 10 is a long way from “failure.”

London 2012 provided the world with many memorable moments. American swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history. The Queen of England “sky-dived” into the opening ceremony. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt placed himself in the sporting pantheon by successfully defending his 100 and 200 meters titles and the 100-meters relay, owning the world records in all three. And who can ever forget The Spice Girls reunion at the closing ceremony?

For Israelis however, the memories will be more mixed. To watch the athletes — their commitment, their grace in defeat, and some of their achievements — the Games were anything but a flop. But a new dissonance certainly emerged between the country’s athletes and those who would like to affiliate themselves with those athletes’ success. A gulf in attitudes divides those who consider sports to be a lifestyle of challenges and personal development, and those who sit outside and demand results.

For the first time since the Seoul in ’88, not a single Israeli stood on the medal podium at the Olympic games. The public was disappointed, no doubt. But Israel’s Olympians provided plenty of reasons for pleasure, pride and optimism that the 2016 Games will be better.

The delegation left for London “with high expectations which we didn’t live up to,” veteran judoka Arik Zeevi told reporters after he landed in Tel Aviv. At 35, Zeevi was the only member of Israel’s team who competed for a fourth time, and was considered by many a sure bet for a podium finish. He was eliminated after 43 seconds of competition.

‘I want to thank the country for supporting me… I’m sorry I wasn’t successful,’ Shatilov told the prime minister

“I did my best,” windsurfer Lee Korzits said after failing to win a medal. That message was repeated by many.

At a hotel a few weeks before the opening ceremony, sharpshooter Sergey Richter had told a Times of Israel reporter that “failure would be thinking I could have done something differently.” Zeevi and Korzits, for a start, may be feeling exactly that sense.

Yet while athletes want to win, of course, and “almost” doesn’t really cut it, the Olympic spirit isn’t just about the medal — it’s also about every athlete doing their utmost in every race, swim, fight, flip, volley or serve. And that, Israel’s representatives certainly did.

National swim records were broken. Members of the delegation were the highest ranked Israelis in history in gymnastics — rhythmic and artistic — swimming and sharpshooting. Windsurfers, tennis players and a judoka did place in the world’s top ten.

Rikhter, for instance, missed the finals by a mere one point. The 25-year-old finished the 10-meter air rifle competition in ninth place, after earning 595 points from a possible 600. Only the top eight advanced to the finals.

After his elimination the sharpshooter was disappointed, but said he had learned from his first Olympic experience. The Rehovot native did not view his elimination as the end, only as the result on that day. The “lack of experience showed,” Richter said after returning to Israel. “It’s a shame not to have competed in the finals,” he told reporters. “I think in Rio 2016 things will be easier.”

Gymnast Alex Shatilov was another medal hopeful. The first Israeli to reach the Olympic finals in gymnastics, at the Beijing Games in ’08, he had steadily improved since. In the men’s all around final he placed 12th — but was ranked first in the floor exercise, his specialty.

So expectations were high. Sports columnists and people in the street fantasized; not merely a first medal in gymnastics, but having Hatikva — Israel’s anthem — played in the O2 Arena!

Alexander Shatilov at the floor finals on Sunday (photo credit: screen capture Channel 1)
Alexander Shatilov at the floor finals on Sunday (photo credit: screen capture Channel 1)

Shatilov finished the men’s floor exercise in sixth place; everyone’s hearts dropped. “He was supposed to win a medal!” Yet Shatilov had achieved the best result by an Israeli gymnast — in any discipline — in Olympic history.

The talented 25-year-old knew people expected more. He also had hoped to do better, but blamed no one. “The judges gave the right score,” Shatilov said. In the middle of the routine, he had “made an unnecessary and critical mistake,” by taking a slightly too large step on one of the landings.

“I can’t blame anyone else for my mistakes,” Shatilov said, after realizing he wouldn’t stand on the podium. “I’m 25-years-old. I feel I can easily go on for four more years, so obviously I plan on being in Rio 2016.”

After the finals, Shatilov received a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I want to thank the country for supporting me,” the gymnast replied. “I’m sorry I wasn’t successful.”

In judo, the four-time European champion Zeevi, who had already won an Olympic medal at Athens ’04, was Israel’s hope for gold. Alice Schlesinger, at 24, was also considered to have podium potential.

But Schlesinger was knocked out by the French world champion, and Zeevi — in what was probably his last international tournament — “made a mistake and paid the price,” he said afterwards.

Still crying, Zeevi used the microphones in front of him to apologize

In one of the most memorable interviews from London 2012, Zeevi — his eyes filled with tears and voice shaking with emotion — said that in judo you “need to seize the moment,” in order to win. “I was lucky to have been on the winning side many times,” he said. “Now it was [my opponent’s] time.”

Still crying, Zeevi used the microphones in front of him to apologize “to those who spent money to [buy tickets and] watch me,” and didn’t see what they had paid for. “It’s not the best way to end your Olympic career,” Zeevi said at the Tel Aviv airport. “Now I need to spend time with my family.”

The results “were disappointing,” Schlesinger told reporters who greeted her at Ben Gurion. “But now I’m looking ahead,” the judoka said, and revealed she had torn a tendon in her elbow during her loss in the round of 16.

Arik Zeevi, in white, being pinned by his opponent Dmitri Peters. (Screenshot: IBA)
Arik Zeevi, in white, being pinned by his opponent Dmitri Peters. (Screenshot: IBA)

The tennis duo of Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram stepped onto the grass at Wimbledon to face Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland. In a come-from-behind win, the Israelis took the second and third sets after dropping the first, and eliminated the Swiss duo.

The two said beating the reigning Olympic champions in the elimination round of 16 was “like a dream.” In the next round the Israelis were eliminated by the Bryan brothers, “the best in the world,” according to Ram.

At the games in Beijing ’08, Israeli windsurfer Shahar Tzuberi won a bronze medal toward the end of the two-week competition. At the bay near Weymouth this time round, Tzuberi — who carried the flag in the opening ceremony and had it shaved into his hair-do for good measure — failed to repeat his accomplishment, finishing in 20th place.

After Tzuberi was eliminated, and with the games drawing to a close, many Israelis turned their hopes to Lee Korzits, the three-time and defending world champion of women’s windsurfing.

Lee Korzits finishing her final race Tuesday. (Screenshot/IBA)
Lee Korzits finishing her final race Tuesday. (Screenshot/IBA)

Could Korzits save the nation’s pride? Would she be the first woman to stand on the podium since Yael Arad won silver in judo at the ’92 Games in Barcelona? Korzits entered her medal race, the 11th and final one of the competition, in second place. But she finished the deciding race in ninth, and ended the competition ranked sixth overall. “I did my best,” Korzits summed it up. “The others did better.”

When trying to summarize the 2012 Olympics, no Israeli fan can ignore the pool, never one of Israel’s strengths. The swim heats at London’s Aquatic Center provided the country with a few memorable moments. In fact, the pool might be the best place to find some silver linings.

‘I was in shock… I surprised myself,’ said Toumarking following his finals swim

Yakov Toumarkin was only the second Israeli in history to advance to the finals of a swim heat at the Summer Games. He finished seventh in the 200 meter backstroke, the highest ranking by any Israeli swimmer ever. In the process, Toumarkin broke the national record, and then almost broke it again.

“I was in shock,” Toumarkin said. He had hoped for a semifinal spot, but to reach the finals? “I surprised myself,” he said.

In the 200 meter individual medley, Amit Ivri failed to advance past the semifinals. But Ivri managed to break Israel’s national record in her qualifying heat, and came close to breaking it again in the semifinals.

The Israeli delegation failed to live up to the three targets announced by the Israeli Olympic Committee. No woman stood on the podium, no medals were won in a new sport, indeed no medals were won at all. Sports minister Livnat announced she’d establish a committee of experts to “look into this year’s failures” at the Olympics.

But while there is always room for improvement — and the Israeli sporting world could use a serious shake-up, which could come as soon as December, when a new Olympic committee head will be elected — Livnat’s critical comments ignored the achievements, and took no account of the athletes’ own sense of disappointment.

Israeli swimmer Gal Nevo competes in the 200 meters Mens Butterfly on Monday, July 30 (image capture channel 1)
Israeli swimmer Gal Nevo competes in the 200 meters Mens Butterfly on Monday, July 30 (image capture channel 1)

Gal Nevo, who made it through to two different swimming semifinals, criticized the minister’s statement. “It’s offensive and inconsiderate to make such statements before everyone has even finished competing,” he told Army Radio shortly after returning to Israel.

Proving the point, less than 48 hours after Livnat’s announcement, Israel’s rhythmic gymnasts made it through to the finals. All six of them.

Neta Rivkin finished the Games in seventh place — the highest ever placing by an Israeli. Rivkin said afterwards that her “mission” had been to take the highest place for an Israeli in the event, “and I did it.”

And shortly before Rivkin carried the Israeli flag at the closing ceremony, Israel’s team of five rhythmic gymnasts finished in eighth place overall.

“I was proud to represent Israel,” Korzits said after losing her medal race. “You can cry over a lost medal,” she told reporters, still teary. But “there are more important things in life,” she said, “like friendship.”

“There is nothing wrong with hoping,” Toumarkin said before participating in the finals of his swim heat.

At the closing ceremony, some 80,000 people joined in with the Monty Python classic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Livnat and the other critics might want to think about those sentiments.

Oh, and Israel did win a medal, kind-of. American-born David Blatt, who guided Russia to a hard-fought bronze, is Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coach, an Israeli resident since the early 1990s, and an Israeli citizen.

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