2024 Paris Olympics

On complex world stage in Paris, Israel’s Olympians hope to stay focused on sport

Despite security threats and concerns over provocations, Israeli officials say goal is to bring home 4-5 medals at 2024 games, upping state grant to gold medalists to NIS 1 million

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

Israeli Olympians (from L to R) Shachar Sagiv, Lihie Raz and Tom Reuveny model the 2024 official uniform on June 3, 2024. (Oded Karni/Olympic Committee of Israel)
Israeli Olympians (from L to R) Shachar Sagiv, Lihie Raz and Tom Reuveny model the 2024 official uniform on June 3, 2024. (Oded Karni/Olympic Committee of Israel)

With a little more than six weeks until the start of the 2024 Olympics, Israel is working around the clock to ensure that the athletes competing at the games in Paris are able to keep their focus entirely on sport, amid a unique set of challenges and security concerns.

“What we want from our athletes and our team members is focus, the mental focus of our athletes and coaches” without the outside pressure of security worries and anti-Israel provocations, Yael Arad, president of the Olympic Committee of Israel, told reporters in a press conference at OCI headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, we want our athletes to come and work, to compete,” said Arad, while noting the complex situation at home as well as the heightened desire, this year more than ever, “to go and represent Israel and to show the beautiful face of Israel.”

Arad, herself a former Olympic judoka who won Israel’s first-ever medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, noted that for months “we thought that by the time we got to the Olympics, the hostages [captured by Hamas on October 7] would have all returned home.” But the complicated ongoing situation at home also gives the athletes “a lot of strength to represent the people of Israel and the Jewish people.”

The OCI has set impressive goals for its appearance at the 2024 Games, with officials saying they expect to bring home four or five medals and for its athletes to qualify for 15-18 finals. Arad pointed specifically to the rhythmic gymnastics team, individual artistic gymnasts, female judokas and sailing athletes as having the best medal chances, with possible surprises in several other branches, including fencing and athletics.

Israel has won 13 Olympic medals in its history, taking home four of those at the COVID-delayed Tokyo games in 2021 — including its second and third golds — which marked the country’s best-ever showing.

Israel’s Linoy Ashram poses with her gold medal during the podium ceremony of the individual all-around final of the Rhythmic Gymnastics event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo, on August 7, 2021. (Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

With the roster not yet finalized amid some ongoing qualifying matches, Israel expects to send around 85 athletes to compete in Paris — which would be the country’s second-largest delegation ever. To Tokyo, Israel sent 90 athletes, which included 24 baseball players; this year’s delegation includes 18 soccer players, a first since 1976.

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar announced at the press conference the largest-ever government incentive for Israeli Olympic medalists — NIS 1 million for gold, NIS 700,000 for silver and NIS 500,000 for bronze, all tax-free. This is double the figures for Tokyo.

“Every time we succeed in hearing the Israeli anthem play in the background while our flag flies overhead is in my eyes worth everything,” said Zohar. “The reason we’re doing this, despite the economic difficulties, despite the enormous costs of the war… is because it has a value that in my eyes is directly related to national morale, which is in such need of a boost.”

Yet non-sporting concerns threaten to cast a pall over the event, with the Israeli delegation on high alert for the possibility of attacks on its athletes in Paris and at other competition locations around France, which has been the site of a number of radical Islamic terror attacks in recent years.

While some have called for Israel to be barred from taking part in the games, or forced to compete under a neutral banner, akin to athletes from Russia and Belarus, the International Olympic Committee has unequivocally dismissed any such efforts, saying there was “no question” Israel would compete as usual.

Behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure the safety of everyone in the delegation are a top priority, but Israeli Olympic officials are also aware of the possibility of protests, booing and other provocations, as well as the potential for some athletes or teams to refuse to play against Israel, something that has occurred at the games and at international competitions in the past.

The Paris 2024 Olympics podium seen in front of the Eiffel Tower on May 23, 2024, during its presentation to the press. (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

Israel’s soccer team will face Mali — a Muslim-majority nation with no diplomatic relations with Israel — in its first game on July 24, and could potentially compete against Egypt, Iraq or Morocco in later rounds.

Zohar said at the press conference that Israel’s best approach to any such provocations is to ignore them, and to allow them to be dealt with through sporting channels, without any political intervention.

“The best way to deal with such things is to win, to succeed on the sporting field,” he said, adding that he would urge his ministerial colleagues to also keep quiet on such issues: “Politics should not be mixed up with sport.”

Arad noted that in the hundreds of international competitions that Israeli athletes have attended since the start of the war, “the number of provocations we encountered was relatively very low.” Most of the athletes competing at the top levels know and respect each other, she said, despite some minor incidents.

The Israeli delegation, Arad said, expects all athletes to follow the Olympic guidelines, and will adhere to them carefully itself. She noted that while competing or on the podium athletes cannot express any political statements, including wearing a hostage pin, but are free to make any comments in post-game interviews.

Olympic Committee of Israel president Yael Arad (left) poses for a photo with Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar in Tel Aviv on June 4, 2024. (Oded Karni/GPO)

Turning to security concerns, Zohar — who will be attending the games himself — said they are a “top priority” for the delegation: “We all understand the complexity of the threats facing Israel and its citizens, in particular athletes who represent Israel around the world.”

The security budget this year has been doubled, he said, and he and Israeli Olympic officials are working in close coordination with the Shin Bet and the security establishment as well as with French security officials. President Isaac Herzog is also slated to attend the games, the first time an Israeli president will travel to the Olympics since 2008.

Speaking in March, IOC president Thomas Bach said the safety of the Israeli athletes was a top concern.

“Since the heinous attack on the Israeli team [during the 1972 Munich Olympics], there were always special measures being taken with Israeli athletes,” said Bach. “The authorities feel comfortable that the same will be true of course also for Paris, Marseille, or wherever there will be Israeli representation.”

Arad noted that, as at every Olympics, the Israeli delegation will hold a ceremony to mark the Munich Olympics massacre, during which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

Drawing a parallel to Hamas’s October 7 massacre, she said the athletes there were “dragged out of bed, unawares, at the biggest sporting event of brotherhood and friendship, and murdered in cold blood.

“It seems nothing has changed in 52 years, considering what happened to us in the south,” she said. “We are carrying this torch from generation to generation.”

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