Tokyo 2020

‘You’ve inspired future generations’: Herzog, Bennett welcome Olympic delegation

Record-breaking Israeli athletes attend Jerusalem reception; PM says those who didn’t win medals also deserve praise for the years of work, pride they brought to nation

Artem Dolgopyat (L) President Isaac Herzog (C) and Linoy Ashram (R) with their Olympic gold medals at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Itay Beit-On/GPO)
Artem Dolgopyat (L) President Isaac Herzog (C) and Linoy Ashram (R) with their Olympic gold medals at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Itay Beit-On/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed Israel’s most successful-ever Olympic delegation in a joint ceremony on Monday, congratulating the athletes for their success and thanking them for the pride they brought to the country.

“You made the history that Israeli athletes have dreamed of for years. The anthem was played not once, but twice,” Herzog said.

“Linoy [Ashram], Artem [Dolgopyat], the judo team, Avishag [Semberg] and all the athletes — those who gave everything, those who were so close, and those who gave their whole soul — on behalf of the people of Israel I say thank you. Thank you for the inspiration you gave to future generations and to all our people. Thank you to our stars. You are our heroes and we are very proud of you.”

Herzog also quipped that the size of the medal haul could perhaps be attributed to him and Bennett assuming their new jobs.

“We are so happy and excited. There are two things that are the big surprise of this Olympics, and they are not what you think — firstly there have never been so many medals won before Bennett and I took office, and secondly, this is the first time the president and prime minister have held this event jointly.”

“You have made a whole country proud and happy, and you have left us speechless,” Herzog said. “You have shown physical and mental abilities, and you have reached individual and group achievements. You have broken a glass ceiling.”

Israel’s Olympic delegation at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Itay Beit-On/GPO)

Bennett focused some of his comments on those who had not won medals, saying they too deserved praise.

“I want to address those who returned without a medal. You may have received less attention, but you deserve no less of our appreciation,” the premier said. “The long road you have taken since you were children with the long hours of training and the message you have sent to the young people of Israel of what you can do if you put in the effort — that is the main thing and for that we are grateful.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets gold medal-winning gymnast Artem Dolgopyat at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The delegation provided us with moments of pride and happiness during a complex time for all of us,” Bennett said. “The Israeli flag was raised over the winners’ podium four times and twice we were privileged to hear the Israeli national anthem, ‘Hatikvah.’ An entire country was moved and wiped away a tear.”

The event was also attended by former president Reuven Rivlin, Sports and Culture Minister Chili Tropper, and two widows of athletes killed in the 1972 massacre of Israelis at the Munich Olympics — Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano. The opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics included, for the first time, an official commemoration of those killed in the terror attack.

Former president Reuven Rivlin (R), Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and President Isaac Herzog at a ceremony for Israel’s Olympic delegation at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s gold medal-winning gymnasts spoke on behalf of their teammates and expressed their gratitude to all those who supported them.

“We felt your support. We knew that the entire State of Israel was behind us, regardless of the result we achieved, and that is the Israeli spirit,” Ashram said. “We still can’t believe this happened and are waking for someone to wake us up, although maybe it’s better that we don’t wake up.”

Dolgopyat said that although the athletes were the ones receiving the recognition, none of it would have been possible without all those working behind the scenes.

“The fame and honor go to those who are out at the front, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We could not have achieved any of this without our coaches,” said Dolgopyat with his customary modesty, before also thanking Israel’s Olympic Committee and the families of all the athletes.

Linoy Ashram (R) and Artem Dolgopyat (L) with their Olympic gold medals at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, August 16, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel marked historic wins and achievements over the 17 days of competition, with its best-ever Olympic showing in Tokyo. Arriving at the games with just nine medals in its history, the Jewish state took home four more including two gold — its second and third ever.

On the first day of the competition, Israel’s Avishag Semberg took home a surprise bronze in taekwondo, setting the tone for Israeli achievements. And while Israel’s heavily favored judokas were felled one by one in their individual matches, they rallied together in the mixed team event — making its Olympic debut this year — to put a bronze medal around each of their necks.

Israel’s Avishag Semberg celebrates with her bronze medal on the podium after winning the taekwondo women’s -49kg bronze medal A bout during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Tokyo, on July 24, 2021. (Javier Soriano/AFP)

And when the gymnastics competitions kicked off, two Israelis fought their way to the top: Dolgopyat, who won gold in the men’s artistic gymnastics floor routine, and Ashram, who took the top spot in the women’s rhythmic gymnastics all-around competition.

Until this year, Israel had never won more than two medals at any individual Olympics. It sent a record-breaking 90 athletes to Tokyo this year, almost double 2016’s high of 47 participants in Rio.

Even off the podium, Israel set a number of records and notched numerous accomplishments.

Matan Roditi, Israel’s first-ever Olympic open-water swimmer, came in fourth in the 10km race, exceeding his own expectations and marking a new high for Israeli swimmers. Marhu Teferi came in 13th in the men’s marathon, setting an Israeli record for an Olympic marathon finish.

Israel’s Linoy Ashram (C) and Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs (R) carry their national flags during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on August 8, 2021. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP)

Anastasia Gorbenko became the first Israeli female swimmer to qualify for an Olympic final, and cyclist Omer Shapira was up ahead during the women’s cycling road race until she was caught by the pack in the final minutes.

Alongside equestrian contests, Israel also made its Olympic debut in Tokyo in archery, baseball and surfing. Archer Itay Shanny defied all the odds to finish ninth overall, after beating out opponents who were ranked significantly higher than him. Israel’s much-hyped baseball team finished its Cinderella-like run in fifth out of six teams overall, putting up a fight against stiff competition. Windsurfing medal favorite Katy Spychakov ultimately finished in sixth place overall.

There were some disappointments for Team Israel as well: runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who won the Tokyo 2020 Marathon and was a favorite to medal on Saturday, had to pause the race due to menstrual cramps and ultimately finished 66th, after leading the pack for much of the way.

And while Israel’s equestrian team made its Olympic debut this year, competitors in both the individual and team show jumping fell off their horses and were eliminated.

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