The Rio Olympics ended its 16-day run Sunday with a festive blowout celebration in the picturesque city.
For Israel, the Games marked a better-than-average showing, a small but noticeable improvement over past years, even if Israeli Olympians failed to bring home the gold (or the silver).
Ilana Koshbetzki, captain of the rhythmic gymnastics team, which finished sixth on Sunday, carried the flag as the Israeli athletes still in Rio — many had already returned to Israel — marched in the closing ceremony.
Israel’s 47-member delegation to Rio, the largest ever, returned home with two bronze medals, both in judo. It was a marked improvement on the 2012 showing in London, from which Israel’s athletes returned without a single medal.
The biggest disappointments came in two sports, rhythmic gymnastics and sailing, where Israel has a history of successes and in which its athletes came close to the performances of the top three winners at Rio.
After two rounds of ribbon-twirling and club- and hoop-tossing, the rhythmic gymnastics team finished with a total score of 34.549, well behind gold-medalist Russia which garnered 36.233 points. Spain and Bulgaria tied for the silver with 35.766.
The team, which won a gold in the hoops and clubs discipline at the European Championships in June, had been considered Israel’s best hope for gold at the Games.
In sailing, Maayan Davidovich came in 9th in the final windsurfing event, failing to make the grade in the only sport in which Israel has ever taken gold — Gal Fridman’s medal in the men’s sailboard in the 2004 Athens Games.
Israel did decidedly better in judo, with Yarden Gerbi taking bronze in the women’s half middleweight and Or Sasson doing the same in the men’s heavyweight.
Two bronzes may seem a paltry showing, but it marks a 28% jump in Israel’s Olympic total, from seven medals since Israel began competing in the Olympics in 1952 — to nine.
Five of those medals, including Yael Arad’s silver in 1992 in Barcelona, are in judo.
But Israel’s performance in Rio showed hints of a better future. Seven sports saw Israelis enter the finals, Israel Olympic Committee CEO Gili Lustig boasted early Monday in an interview with Army Radio.
Israelis also competed in three new sports: golf, triathlon, and mountain biking. Overall, Israelis were in 17 sporting competitions, up from 10 in London.
And more than half the Israeli delegation was made up of women, noted Lustig.
A hero’s welcome
On August 9, Yarden Gerbi defeated Japan’s Miku Tashiru in the runner-up bout to clinch the bronze in judo, the first Israeli medal since 2008.
Three days later, Or Sasson brushed off an unpleasant encounter with Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby in the over 100 kilogram category, winning two more matches and only narrowly losing to France’s legendary Teddy Riner. He then beat Cuba’s Alex Mendoza to claim the bronze.
Both were initially feted from afar, earning celebratory covers on the front pages of Israel’s popular tabloids and calls from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate them.
They returned home last week to a hero’s welcome, facing cheering crowds at Ben Gurion Airport.
But their success was not to last.
On Wednesday, Israeli competitors in the women’s wrestling and men’s taekwondo events both lost their first round bouts.
Ilana Kratysh, competing in the 69kg women’s freestyle wrestling contest, lost her match against Brazilian Gilda Maria De Oliveria by 6 points to 2.
That was soon after taekwondo fighter Ron Atias was beaten 16-2 on points by Brazilian Venilton Torres Teixeira.
Kratysh, 26, from Haifa, was competing in her first Olympics and is the first Israeli to enter the women’s wrestling contest. She began her sports training in judo before moving over to wrestling.
Ranked fifth in the world, the defeat was a major upset for Kratysh, who has won several medals in European contests during her career, with an unbroken run of medals every year since 2013.
Taekwondo fighter Atias, ranked 15th in the world in the under-58kg category, was also representing Israel for the first time at the Olympic Games.
The bout started badly for Atias after his opponent kicked him in the head in the first round, scoring three points. In the following round Teixeira again scored a blow to Atias’s head and pulled ahead to 8:0. However, Atias’s coach Yechiam Sharabi successfully appealed to the judges and the lead was reduced to 7:0.
By the end of the third round Teixeira had won 16 points while Atias, having been penalized for an illegal kick to the legs, scored just two points.
Even in far-off Rio, Israel’s delegation could not quite escape the animosities of the Middle East.
In an angry encounter at the start of the game, Israeli athletes attempting to board a bus to the Olympic facilities were prevented from doing so by Lebanese athletes who insisted they would not share the bus.
On August 12, Egyptian Islam el-Shehaby pointedly refused to shake the proffered hand of Israeli judoka Sasson, drawing boos from the crowd and anger from the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC said the Egyptian’s conduct “was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic values.”
But in the end, Israel was not held back by its opponents, but by its own lack of investment in its athletes. As Sasson noted after returning home last week, many of Israel’s top athletes earn close to minimum wage as they train.
Or in the words of Israel’s Olympic chief Lustig, “some thinking must be done” about improving Israel’s showing at Tokyo 2020.