Israel Takes Up an Olympian Fight

Israel preparing hard to win at the Olympics with judo. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
Israel preparing hard to win at the Olympics with judo. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS.
  • by Pierre Klochendler (jerusalem)
  • Inter Press Service

'’Hajime’!' Fresh from Chelyabinsk, Russia, crowned with one gold medal, one silver, and two bronze medals, they have no time to celebrate this unprecedented success in the annals of Israeli sport.

Olympics bronze medallist in Athens 2004, Ariel Zeevi puts on his blue kimono for a first practice since he’s won his fourth European title in the under-100-kilogramme weight class. At 35, ranked the world’s seventh, the veteran judoka is making a comeback.

'I won the Grand Slam in Moscow (2011), a bronze medal in the Qingdao Grand Prix (2011), I’m now the oldest European champion ever,' Zeevi muses. 'I can’t say that I expected it — I wanted it, I wanted to believe I can do it. But in judo, anything can happen within seconds.'

Alice Schlesinger, bronze medal in the under-63-kilogrammes category, has also secured her spot in this summer Olympics. A bronze medallist in the men's -73kg category, Soso Palelashvili is in for London as well. But Yarden Gerbi, silver in the women's -63kg, won’t be participating in the Games.

London, here they come — all in all, five judokas - four men, one woman- are selected for the summer Olympics.

'I can win.' Zeevi exudes renewed confidence while grabbing the white kimono of another judoka. 'The best about judo is that it’s complicated. When I was younger, I was more physical. Now, I’m tactical, waiting for the right moment to attack,' he demonstrates as his partner suddenly finds himself on the tatami.

Everything’s rosy, though only two months ago Palelashvili was arrested on suspicion of stealing toothpaste in Germany after a tournament.

If Israel’s judo is on the ascent, that’s because success is rooted in a budding tradition, explains Shani Hershko, Zeevi’s coach. 'In Barcelona (1992), Israel won its first two Olympic medals, both in judo. Since then, everybody knows, wants to practice, judo.'

Twenty years ago, Yael Arad was the first-ever Israeli athlete to win a medal at the Games with silver. Oren Smadja won the bronze. Now 42, he’s the national team’s coach. 'I’m closing a full circle. In London, Israel’s judo will reach its highest peak,' he promises.

But his mind’s already set on Rio de Janeiro 2016. Alexander Raskopin, Cadet Olympics champion; Sagi Muki, ranked fifth in the junior world cup; Li Kochman, bronze in the European Cadet Championship — the next generation of judokas is fighting for prominence.

Why would Israel be a judo superpower? 'Unfortunately, we know to fight wars,' Hershko says half- jokingly. 'When we fight on the mat, we fight for our country.' Fight with ‘ippons’ and ‘waza-aris’, not war, would indeed befit the true spirit of the Olympic Games.

Beyond the goal of garnering more medals, can excellence in judo inspire young Israelis? 'Sport isn’t just about winning,' says Zeevi à la Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games who once said, 'The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.

'Sport is best for knowing and improving oneself — how to mentally cope with failure and stress. But it necessitates hard work. I tell parents, ‘Send your children to sports’!' urges the old-new role model.

The hope is that duelling on the tatami can motivate Israeli youth away from the afflictions of modern society — alcohol and violence, fast food, boredom and TV reality shows. And, from the modern-day dream of making money fast and easy.

'Sport is a mean to mobilise the young generation to have a dream and to fight to achieve it,' stresses Efraim Zinger, secretary-general of the Olympic Committee of Israel. 'Instead of submitting to the tyranny of the screen — be it an iPod, a TV, or a computer — sport brings people together. After all, our athletes show the normal face of Israel’s society.'

Adi Grossman, 17, is ranked fifth in the European Cadet Championship and seventh in the youth Olympics. She might still be too young for Rio, she concedes. But she’s determined to try.

'I’ve set myself a different goal. When my friends go out, I practice. Most of them are here in judo anyway. I took this sacrifice like an oath, and I’m happy. I fell in love with judo when I was six. It’s in my blood. I love getting up in the morning, coming here every day. I love to compete. My heart beats!' the young black belt exclaims.

Not only the future, but history, of the Olympic movement in Israel holds a special significance. 'Sixty years ago, for the first time, an Israeli delegation participated in the Olympics. That was in Helsinki,' Zinger recalls nostalgically — and on a sad note, 'This year, we also mark the fortieth anniversary of the Munich massacre.'

In September 1972, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation were killed by the Palestinian group Black September during the Games held in the Bavarian capital.

'See my flag?' Smadja pulls his kimono vest, proudly showing the chest patch, 'It’s close to my heart. Every judoka wants to represent his country well. Israel is plagued with problems — the conflict, the occupation. We want to prove that we have a tradition, an education; that we exist and live with hope. That’s our judo.'

Notwithstanding the pride of honouring the blue and white colours, Zeevi, a father of two, earns a mere 6,000 shekels (1,500 dollars) monthly. He must fight — literally — to sustain his family. The Israel Judo federation’s annual budget stands at four million shekels (one million dollars).

'The big companies here don’t understand that were they to sponsor our athletes instead of advertising TV stars, they’d be doing good for the community, and would also earn money,' bemoans Hershko.

After London, Zeevi plans to retire. 'The sky’s the limit. If I could do it at 35, everyone could do it.'

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service